Commentary

Sentence puts Vick's NFL career in jeopardy

If he serves all 23 months of his prison sentence, Michael Vick's NFL career is in serious jeopardy, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: December 10, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison Monday for his involvement in a dogfighting operation. The lengthy sentence puts Vick's career in jeopardy. If he receives time off for good behavior, Vick could serve 85 percent of his sentence (about 19 1/2 months), resulting in a May 2009 release.

What would serving the full sentence mean to Vick's career?

It could end his NFL career. Because he has already served a month in jail (he reported to a Virginia facility Nov. 19), Vick would get out of prison October 2009. Because it would be unlikely for him to come back that late in an NFL season, he would have missed three consecutive seasons: 2007, 2008 and 2009. It's hard for any player to come back after two missed seasons, but three is an eternity. Vick, who was born June 26, 1980, would be 29 when he gets out of prison. While that is a still young for an athlete, it's the time missed that will be a problem. The NFL continues to evolve into a passing league. More colleges are using pass-oriented offenses. Vick is a running quarterback. His instincts as a passer would be hard to regain after three missed seasons.

Can he appeal?

No. When Vick accepted the plea bargain, he did it understanding the judge need not accept the recommendation of the prosecutor and could go for a longer sentence. That's what happened last week when co-defendants Dennis Phillips (21 months) and Purnell Peace (18 months) received longer sentences than expected. Because Vick was the money man in Bad Newz Kennels and was the last to cut a plea agreement, he figured to get the longest sentence. He did.

What is the league's position?

Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't have to do anything until 2009, when Vick should be clear of his legal problems for dogfighting. It's similar to the Tank Johnson situation. Johnson, former defensive tackle of the Chicago Bears, served 45 days in jail on a misdemeanor weapons charge. After he was released from jail May 13, Johnson met with Goodell and was suspended for eight games. He's now playing with the Dallas Cowboys. Once Vick is out of prison, he will meet with Goodell to discuss a return to the NFL and a possible league suspension. The earliest possible meeting is May 2009.

What if he gets out of prison after serving 85 percent of the sentence?

If he serves 85 percent of his sentence, he would be released in May 2009, possibly putting him in play for the 2009 season. That poses the most interesting question for Goodell: Should he consider keeping Vick out for that season anyway to serve a suspension? Again, Goodell must judge public opinion. He'll remember that Vick lied to him about his involvement in dogfighting when they discussed the topic at the NFL draft in New York last spring. He will take into account how the judge and prosecutor in this case believed Vick wasn't forthcoming regarding allegations he killed dogs. Plus, Vick still must spend part of 2008 defending himself in the state case in Virginia, and no one knows the outcome of that. It looks like 2010 is the earliest he could return.

How will Goodell handle that decision?

That's a tough call. The commissioner's biggest dilemma is figuring out whether time served in prison is sufficient for an act that is as unpopular as dogfighting. The other factor is going to be public perception. Goodell must weigh how PETA supporters feel about Vick once he is out of prison. Vick had a meeting with PETA executives to show how sorry he is for operating a dogfighting operation. It's pretty evident PETA would like Vick to be a spokesman against dogfighting. If he is willing to do ads in which he describes how his life has been ruined by dogfighting, it may be a good thing. The Atlanta Journal Constitution estimated Vick lost about $145 million in salary, future salary and endorsements.

Could Goodell be compassionate in his decision?

That's possible. He has shown he's willing to give a troubled player a chance to earn his way back into the league. He often sets a two-tiered suspension that the player can end early if he doesn't commit any other offenses and complies with everything asked. For example, Pacman Jones' suspension was for a year. Had Jones cleaned up his legal affairs, the suspension could have been shortened to 10 games. Tank Johnson's suspension was for eight. Had his behavior been perfect, he could have shortened the suspension to six games. Goodell is trying to provide some incentive to give hope of a shortened suspension.

Goodell could consider the time served in prison as Vick's suspension. Many figured Vick was going to miss the 2007 and 2008 seasons. His suspension was indefinite, but even under the prosecutors' lower guidelines of 12 to 18 months in prison, Goodell probably would have suspended him through 2008 to make the appearance Vick wasn't getting off lightly for his dogfighting actions.

Figuring Vick could be back for the 2010 season, who would be interested?

That's the hardest question. The NFL averages seven coaching changes a year. Two-thirds of the NFL coaching staffs could be changed by the 2010 season. Two-thirds of the starting quarterbacks could be turned over by then. If the trend continues to go for quarterbacks with better passing skills, it will be that much harder for Vick to find a team. With only tape from the 2006 season to be used to make judgments, teams might consider Vick a dinosaur. But if any team would be interested in Vick, it would be the Raiders. Under Al Davis, Oakland has shown a willingness to take a chances on talented but troubled athletes. Davis is a big believer in speed and Vick is fast. But who knows what the dynamics of the Raiders' roster will be by 2010 or 2011.

What can Vick do during his time in prison?

He's training every day. He's reportedly at his playing weight. Although he can't play football in prison, he reportedly is playing basketball. Vick is a world-class athlete, so he might want to consider playing other positions. Everyone knows he can run, so maybe he could come back as a minimum-salary running back. Clearly, no team will invest big money in Vick.

Where does he stand with the Atlanta Falcons?

Owner Arthur Blank will never take him back, but he doesn't have to cut him until 2009 at the earliest. On Oct. 10, an arbitrator ruled Vick owes the Falcons $19.9 million for not fulfilling his contract. Most of that money is from the signing bonus proration. If the Falcons cut him, they might lose the ability to reclaim that money. It is not known whether Vick has the financial ability or willingness to pay off that obligation to the Falcons. Blank offered only this statement Monday: "Michael Vick's federal prison sentencing today is another step in his legal journey. This is a difficult day for Michael's family and for a lot of us, including many of our players and fans who have been emotionally invested in Michael over the years."

How hard is it for player to come back after two years?

Ricky Williams missed 18 months in the NFL on a marijuana suspension. (He did have a short stint in the CFL.) Williams returned to play for Miami on Nov. 26 against the Steelers and suffered a torn chest muscle in the first half. He's now on injured reserve. To play in the NFL, a player must train year-round to be ready for the league's physical and mental rigors. Offseason programs for teams begin in March and are intense. Vick will be outside that system for too long. Prison doesn't offer the resources teams can provide to maintain what it takes to compete in the NFL. Jamal Lewis spent an offseason in jail when he had an injured ankle. He wasn't able to rehabilitate the ankle in jail and struggled the following season.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer