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Vick shouldn't exhale yet

7/18/2007 - Atlanta Falcons

ATLANTA -- For beleaguered Michael Vick, the events Friday represented more of a temporary reprieve -- with the emphasis definitely on temporary at this point -- than they did total redemption.

Although federal agents dug shallow troughs for hours Friday on the property Vick owns in Surry County, Va., combing for evidence of a dog fighting ring alleged to have operated there, the efforts weren't enough to shovel dirt on Vick's football livelihood or heap further suspicion upon his reputation. In a southeast Virginia backyard that could well have been a graveyard for Vick's career on the field and a requiem for his marketability off it, there were plenty of divots.

But none of the holes has grown into an abyss.

Which isn't to say that the quixotic quarterback is close to emerging from the deep public relations ravine that he has dug for himself this offseason.

As ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Kelly Naqi have reported, we now know there are indications Vick will not be named among the three people expected to be indicted in the federal probe. And courtesy of the sources ESPN.com has nurtured during the course of the long Vick soap opera, and who weighed in through much of the day and night Friday, it's also clear he is not out of the woods.

There were two words, ongoing investigation, employed so many times Friday by sources that they became a mantra, which should still reduce Vick to chills. If his angst is a little less pronounced now, Vick had better still keep his head on a swivel.

"Just because you've got a lot of links (lying) around doesn't mean you can call in a chain," one source said late Friday night. "But it also doesn't mean you abandon the notion of seeing if those links might someday become a chain."

Translation: The events of Friday aside, Vick remains on the radar screen of the Feds. Federal investigators tend to be incredibly thorough and dogged in their pursuit of the truth. And while the trail might be cold for now, if a scent of Michael Vick remains in the air, well, a final resolution of this case as it involves him is very much up in the air as well.

It should be noted that the source of the quote was one of the people who in late May told ESPN.com they felt there was sufficient evidence to bring a bill of indictment against Vick, but who questioned whether the quarterback could be successfully prosecuted.

Noted the same source earlier Friday afternoon: "Remember, this is an investigation into what has been considered an enterprise involving many people ... From our standpoint, it never has focused on one individual and it still doesn't."

From the standpoint of the public, however, Vick is this story.

Beyond the well-intentioned folks at PETA or the American Humane Society, how many people would have lent even a nanosecond's attention to the investigation in Surry County were a headliner's name not attached to it?

During the past three months of suspicion, rumor, innuendo and even the occasional snippet of fact, this city and its football franchise have wearily suffered through a phenomenon that has come to be called Vick Fatigue. But it is has done so with unwaveringly insufferable curiosity. Atlanta is known as "The City Too Busy to Hate." Yet the attention of the community, even those who don't hold Falcons season tickets, hasn't been so diverted in the past three months that it couldn't keep at least one eye trained in the direction of No. 7.

Arguably the most polarizing sports personality in the city's history,Vick has been an even more divisive presence this offseason, the rift often along racial lines. There are myriad fractionalized camps here. The "see-I-told-you-so legion" of critics who already have deemed Vick culpable in the court of public opinion. The cautious "let's-wait-until-all-the-facts-are-in" supporters. And the conspiracy theorists who believe there is a Mark Fuhrman element at work, even if the evidence they suggest might have been planted on his property hasn't yet born enough fruit to indict him.

The events Friday, in which it is believed that more dog carcasses were unearthed, neither merged nor eliminated any of those factions. Nor does the fact Vick will not be indicted, according to Chris Mortensen's sources, mean the Falcons' star is beyond suspicion. There are a lot of reasons that, since 2000, the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta boasts a conviction rate of between 95-96 percent. The most significant one, though, is that the Feds rarely indict unless they know that there is sufficient evidence to convict.

For now, at least, they apparently haven't been able to turn the evidentiary links into a chain. And maybe they never will. Still, in late May, a confidential informant described Vick, in an compelling interview with Naqi, as "a heavyweight" in dog fighting circles. And it takes a haymaker, not a split decision, to bring down most heavyweights.

Whether such a knockout punch exists, whether law enforcement authorities can develop an uppercut as the investigation presses forward, remains to be seen.

Even after federal authorities took over the dog fighting investigation, there was always a question of how the tawdriness might affect Vick's status for the 2007 season. And there was a sense that, because of the timing involved, and the potential dilatory maneuvers that any savvy attorney would make to forestall court action, he probably could not be sanctioned during the upcoming season. That sense was enhanced Friday night.

And unless there is an unknown demerit on his NFL resume, Vick might well be beyond the reach of even the league's new and harsher personal conduct policy. The policy enacted by commissioner Roger Goodell is aimed at addressing repeat offenders, recidivists for whom the privilege of playing in the league isn't enough to preclude them from locating trouble, and Vick, despite some offensive behavior and undeniably bad judgments, doesn't have a known first offense.

So for now, Vick remains the presumptive Atlanta starter, as he has for the entire offseason. Minus, perhaps, some of the intense glare from the searing spotlight that always seems to accompany him.

As federal agents Friday paraded through the yard of Vick's property, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and general manager Rich McKay were on an African safari, and first-year head coach Bobby Petrino was in Montana for his parents' anniversary. Even from those far-flung venues, one could almost discern a collective sigh of relief.

But for an athlete whose calling card is derring-do play, being able to breathe a little easier should not be taken for granted.

Because even Friday's respite, as welcomed as it must have been for Vick and the Falcons' organization, isn't an excuse yet to exhale.


Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.