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Reid's 'Vick Project' coming to an end

Eagles coach Andy Reid bought into the hype and hope of Michael Vick to each man's detriment. Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Andy Reid might be coaching his final games for the 3-6 Eagles because Michael Vick might have started his last game as a franchise quarterback in the National Football League.

That's the cold, hard conclusion to what once was a heartwarming tale of redemption: "Andy and Mike," father and surrogate son, courageous white coach inviting the wrath of dog-lovers everywhere to give a fallen black superstar the opportunity to rehabilitate himself as a quarterback and a man.

Would any other team have given Vick a shot after 17 months in prison? No, certainly not right away. But Reid had strode boldly out onto the draft limb to take another black quarterback, Donovan McNabb, with the No. 2 overall pick, and five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance later, encouraged by McNabb, Reid embraced the ex-con who had last called signals for Bad Newz Kennels.

Reid, as beloved by his players as any NFL coach, has a huge heart.

And an ego to match.

The quarterback-maker in Reid wanted to show the NFL world he, and he alone, could pull off the near-impossible: turn the NFL's most elusive broken-field runner into a championship-caliber pocket passer. Reid is failing spectacularly, very possibly costing himself his job and often costing Vick his health.

Vick has a huge heart, too, and he gave body and soul to Reid and his teammates. But cold, hard conclusion: You can't compete for a championship with Michael Vick as your starting quarterback. 

Vick has always been overrated as a quarterback because, in truth, he was a smallish scatback who merely lined up at QB -- the NFL's greatest escape artist, a one-man "Cirque du Soleil" act who often got a pass for his passing. Reid's only shot with Vick was letting him do what he did so stunningly in Atlanta -- mostly follow his run-first instincts. Instead, Reid and QB coach Marty Mornhinweg tried forcing their square-peg passing game into the round hole that is Vick. He tried valiantly to become a conventional field-scanning pocket passer, but the more he tried to glance at options 1-2-3, the worse it got. He became a brain-cramping identity crisis: Run! No throw! No wait! Too late.

Vick has a sideshow-strong arm to match his crazy legs but he has never been consistently accurate enough, with enough touch or feel, to make an NFL passing game click. His offense always feels herky-jerky, a little out of sync. In Reid's offense, fighting his instinct to take off, he often has stood in against semi-trucks barreling down on him while trying to pull off his second most spectacular "SportsCenter" highlight -- the 70-yard bomb.

Vick is listed at 6 feet, 215 pounds, but doesn't look or play that big. He often has a hard time seeing over defensive linemen, his durability doesn't always match his courage and his high-risk, high-reward nature will produce turnovers -- nine interceptions and five lost fumbles this season.

Michael Vick used to be the NFL's most entertaining player. Now, a physically and mentally battered 32, he's probably destined next year to be someone else's backup or Wildcat QB.

Yet thanks to Reid, the Eagles gave Vick a $100 million contract. Thanks to Reid, the ball has been in Vick's hands on about 70 percent of the Eagles' plays in his 34 starts, including postseason, over the past three seasons -- often at the expense of the Eagles' best player, running back LeSean McCoy. In Reid's three wins this season, McCoy carried/caught the ball 20-plus times. McCoy was under 20 carries in each of Reid's six losses.

Vick is 18-16 as Reid's starter, but he's 10-12 over the last two seasons, and he lost six of his last seven if you include Sunday's home loss to Dallas, when Vick was lost to a concussion midway through the second quarter. His QBR (on a scale of 100) has fallen to 47.5, 27th among the 34 QBs who qualify, just behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and just ahead of Blaine Gabbert. Yes, the offensive line has lost four starters and the overhyped, overpaid defense failed to live up to its "Dream Team" billing. But in the NFL, the quarterback sets the tone. The quarterback's playmaking can inspire his blockers and his defense to overachieve.

As much as they love him, Vick's teammates sent a resounding message last Sunday the moment rookie third-rounder Nick Foles replaced Vick. Both sides of the ball immediately began to click -- to play with speed and purpose and hope not often seen this season. That effectively signaled the inglorious end of Andy Reid's Vick Project.

Reid won the war and lost the battle, lost on the field as Vick won off it. One day Reid well might be proudest of how much he had to do with Vick's astonishing transformation. By all accounts, he has turned his life around. I've spoken to many who know him, and as far as they know, Vick is everything he wasn't as an Atlanta Falcon: husband, father, dedicated team leader. Does he still have some flaws? We all do.

But compared to the guy who once tortured and killed some of the pit bulls he owned and forced to fight to the death, the Philly Vick actually qualifies as something few athletes do: a role model. I can't believe I just wrote those words. A role model! I'm a dog-lover. In 2007, when I read the sick, sickening details of what Vick did to those dogs, I said on "First Take" that no man with a soul could do those things. I said I would forgive, but never forget.

Now, I find myself forgetting. That's the highest tribute I can pay to Vick's rebirth. So understand: I am not hating on Vick's game just because I'm a dog-lover with a grudge.

And as Vick was busted and finally sentenced, our ongoing "First Take" debates opened my eyes and mind to this: Several black debaters made the case it isn't as common in the black community to treat dogs as family members. No doubt some black families do, but in the black community dogs are more likely to be treated as pets -- as just animals. So I eventually heard via Twitter from many black viewers who were just as outraged over Vick's prison sentence as I was over his dead-eyed cruelty.

"They're just dogs!" I heard again and again.

OK, agree to disagree. But if you still have sympathy for "victim" Vick, please don't let it cloud your objectivity over his performance.

I will, however, forever appreciate what Vick meant to Falcons fans black and white. In Atlanta, Michael Vick was Michael Jordan meets Michael Jackson. You couldn't miss a Vick performance because he just might do something you'd never seen before. This was very possibly the greatest athlete ever to play pro football -- though former Falcon Deion Sanders might argue.

The increasing downside: Vick wanted so badly to please his fans that he tried harder and harder to pull off the great escape or the Dome-rocking bomb ... at the rising risk of injury and at the expense of playing winning quarterback. He kept playing can-you-top-this with himself and started losing that game.

His bar was set impossibly high in his first playoff game, at age 22. In the early January snow at Lambeau Field, Vick's Falcons stunned the Packers 27-7 -- Green Bay's first home playoff loss ever! Vick completed only 13 of 25 for 117 yards, but contributed 64 of Atlanta's 192 rushing yards. The key, though, was that Vick's offense had zero turnovers to Green Bay's five -- including two Brett Favre interceptions. The win was more sensational than Vick had been.

Vick's Falcons made the playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2004. He went 2-2 in the postseason, beating the Rams in Atlanta in '04 but having no chance either season against the late, great Jim Johnson's defense in Philly.

Fast forward to Vick's first Monday-night performance as Andy Reid's starter, Week 10 of 2010. With PETA still protesting and fans still torn over whether Vick should even be allowed to set foot on an NFL field, Michael Vick gave the world his greatest performance ever -- Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden. At Washington, Vick went 20 of 28 for 333 yards and ran eight times for 80 more. Unconscious hot. But his curtain-call play came just as the curtain rose. On the game's first play, he threw an 88-yard home run to DeSean Jackson.

The next morning I called it the greatest individual "Monday Night Football" performance ever. From prison to the pinnacle! Impossible!

In hindsight, that game doomed Reid and Vick. Reid was suddenly the genius who had the guts to buy back into Vick -- and Reid had fallen head-over-ego into the Vick trap. Vick would never quite be able to live up to that Monday night, though he would nearly die trying.

Vick's pattern became flashes of brilliance ... which led to increasingly dangerous attempts at "hero" plays ... which led to Vick taking more and more punishment and wearing and slowing down.

His first Philly season ended with a home playoff game against eventual champ Green Bay, which ended with Vick heaving a prayer into the corner of the end zone that was easily intercepted. He failed to see DeSean Jackson running wide open in the middle of the field. Vick has never been a sensationally clutch late-game passer. Since Vick's rookie year, of the 41 QBs who have attempted at least 500 fourth-quarter/overtime passes, only Aaron Brooks has a worse fourth-quarter/overtime completion percentage.

Last season, Vick's 8-8 Eagles crumbled under the weight of overhype. Yet Vick continued to increase expectations by talking a bigger game than he was able to play. Before camp opened, he dared to talk "dynasty" and "Super Bowl or bust." After owner Jeff Lurie said another 8-8 season would be unacceptable -- and the media began to question Reid's job security -- Vick vowed to win for Andy.

Vick had gotten to know Reid's son Garrett, who along with his brother Britt had fought drug problems. Maybe Vick related to the legal issues Garrett had endured. Maybe Reid was trying to be there for Vick in ways he hadn't always been for his sons.

In a training camp dorm on Aug. 5, Garrett was found dead of a heroin overdose.

Vick dedicated the season to Garrett. No Eagle tried harder. "Nobody," Reid recently said, "is more competitive than this kid."

But the last five games, all losses, grew painful to watch. ESPN's Ron Jaworski (unofficially) reports that Vick has been hit 139 times this season – brutal punishment. Vick became the equivalent of a punch-drunk fighter, sometimes going glassy-eyed under a rush, flinching or freezing. When rushers or blitzers came free on the Atlanta Vick, he toyed with them, making them pay by making them look silly. Then, teams rarely blitzed him.

Now Michael Quick isn't quite as sudden as he once was. Now he has become a turnover machine. Now, trying to hang in Andy's pocket, he has lost confidence and identity.

Now Reid must try to save face and his job by trying to convince the owner and the fans Nick Foles is the future.