ATLANTA -- Perhaps the most debated sports personality in recent history here even before he was indicted on dogfighting charges, Michael Vick could go from polarizing to pulverizing when it comes to the Falcons' future.
Make no mistake, the New Year's Eve loss at Philadelphia that ended Atlanta's 2006 season, with an injured Vick on the bench and then-backup Matt Schaub attempting to rally the troops, was Vick's Falcons finale. No one knew it at the time, of course, but when the dynamic quarterback limped off the field that chilly day at Lincoln Financial Field, he basically limped into franchise history.
And now, given the disturbing events of this offseason, the history of the Falcons is apt to be forever altered. And there figure to be rocky times ahead.
But for how long?
There have been suggestions that, minus Vick and the cachet he gave a team that in its four decades of existence has never registered consecutive winning seasons, the franchise might never recover from the sullying he has visited upon it. But in a league constantly in flux, where a month often seems like an eternity, never is an incredibly long time.
Surely, owner Arthur Blank and his team will be left wobbling by the loss of Vick and, maybe even more, by the public relations catastrophe that accompanies having been merely associated with a person accused of such reprehensible actions.
No one can predict when the statute of limitations expires on this one and when fans upset at Vick and the Falcons are finally assuaged.
A guy who wears his passion on his Armani-suited sleeves, Blank has concerned himself just as much with winning friends as he has with winning football games during his stewardship of the club. Maybe even more so. While his goal has been to one day hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, it also has been to preside over a business that is just as shiny as that coveted piece of Super Bowl hardware.
It could well be that Atlanta finds it easier to win games, after absorbing the initial shock of having to play without Vick, than to win back the allegiance of a city in which many patrons now feel betrayed.
Only a few weeks ago, the Falcons announced that they were making available a few more season-ticket packages, this after everyone had been led to believe the Georgia Dome was sold out for the 2007 campaign. Whispers are that the tickets were returned by fans distraught at the accusations against Vick (and the possibility that those charges might be merited). At least one group of Falcons' ticket holders has already met to discuss the potential for a class-action suit against the Falcons because they feel Vick's absence has devalued their investment. And unless the Falcons sever ties to Vick before the club's first regular-season home game, on Sept. 23 against rival Carolina, there almost certainly will be picketers at the Georgia Dome.
From a business and socioeconomic standpoint, there is also the issue of the demographics of Atlanta, a town in which the majority population in the city proper is African-American. That the Falcons have played to full houses for much of Blank's tenure isn't attributable mainly to the fact he sold tickets in the upper reaches of the Georgia Dome for $10 a game, it's because of the presence of Vick, who has been embraced by the black community.
No one on the current roster, not high-profile Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall or the ever-social-minded tailback Warrick Dunn, can replace Vick in the hearts and wallets of the black fans here. And even with the preponderance of evidence that has been cited in the charges against Vick, he still has supporters who insist he was framed. When the Falcons officially cut ties to Vick, as they eventually will, they will at the same time be severing connections with a segment of the populace still unwilling to believe the quarterback's wounds were self-inflicted.
As for the competitive element, well, that might be more easily bridged, but it also will take some time for the team to recover. Even with Vick on the field, few pundits regarded the Falcons as a legitimate playoff contender in 2007. Minus the X-factor dimension, Atlanta could well bottom out on the field.
When first-year coach Bobby Petrino implemented his offense during the spring, he was wise enough to install subtle differences in the protection packages. One plan for Vick, another for backup Joey Harrington in case Vick was injured. The plan looks like genius now, but it still probably won't be enough to transform Harrington into something he hasn't been in his previous five NFL seasons.
There aren't many coaches who succeed wildly in their first year transitioning from the college game to the pro level. Petrino may well live up to his reputation as an offensive mastermind. But he will have to be the football equivalent of Einstein, with a staff stocked with Mensa members, to survive the loss of his most electrifying player. Credit the new staff for quickly focusing the team on the fact that a season is approaching and for keeping the Falcons from playing with their heads on swivels, waiting for Vick to ride in and save the day. But all the unwavering focus probably won't salvage the season.
Popular opinion here is that the Falcons could suffer through a miserable season and land a high draft choice in 2008, which would allow Petrino to select his former Louisville quarterback, Brian Brohm, next spring. Stranger things have happened and, in the long run, that might not be such a terrible payoff for the pain the franchise will endure in 2007.
Finally, there are the finances attached to Vick, with Blank having shelled out more than $40 million under the landmark contract extension his star signed in December 2004. The Falcons could attempt to recover a portion of the $37 million paid out in bonuses, but some of they money falls into gray areas. It's debatable, even if Atlanta pursues it, just how much can be returned to the owner's coffers. For his huge investment, all that Blank will have realized, on the field, was one trip to the NFC title game in January 2005.
If there is any silver lining for Blank, his franchise and this city, it probably lies in the fact that the NFL remains a powerful brand. League history has shown that overcoming adversity is possible. The New Orleans Saints, under very different circumstances, proved this is 2006.
Given free agency, the draft and the culture of a league forever in flux, there is no such thing as fully irreparable damage anymore.
Still, the Vick fiasco, with its complexities and multitiered components, might come pretty close to it.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.