What might have been

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been"' -- John Greenleaf Whittier

This is how it ends.

With the sentencing of Michael Vick for 23 months, the other shoe has finally dropped. His release from prison is scheduled for October 2009, so it's safe to assume that the earliest Vick would return to the NFL is 2010. If Vick wanted to pursue that course, he'd be doing so not as an energetic, able-bodied youngster but as a 30-year-old who'd spent the previous three years away from the game and, presumably, nowhere close to peak physical condition. There's simply no way to recapture those lost years. His legs will be a step slower. His skills will have eroded. Even in the world of fantasy, there's no way to manufacture the memorable moments missed, the scrambles not seen, the plays not made.

Consider this: If you were to take just Vick's passing numbers from last year and put them up against the 2007 NFL quarterback corps, you'd be looking at a potential top-10 signal caller. And that's before you tacked on the rushing numbers, which would likely rank Vick in the top 20 ... of running backs. Simply put, Vick has the potential to be the most dominant fantasy football player in the world, and it seemed that he was just getting warmed up.

Think back to these performances and remember how exciting he was to watch.

In Week 13 of 2002 against the Minnesota Vikings, he completed 11 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown, and matched that output on the ground with 10 rushes for 173 yards and not one, but two touchdowns. The Falcons won, on the road, 30-24.

In Week 14 of 2003, in just his second game back after suffering a broken leg in the preseason, Vick rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown and led Atlanta to a 20-14 win over the Carolina Panthers.

The following year, he cemented his place in fantasy owners' hearts by having three 100-yard rushing games and throwing a total of five touchdown passes in those three games, all victories. Vick led his team all the way to the NFC championship game that season, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for 119 yards in a 47-17 blowout of the Rams to take his team one step shy of the Super Bowl.

After a disappointing 2005, Vick turned the corner in a huge way in '06. He has another three 100-yard rushing games and became the first quarterback in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. More importantly, he had two four-touchdown passing performances, proving he could do it in the air as well as on the ground.

At the quarterback position, Vick finished 2006 behind only Peyton Manning in most fantasy football scoring systems. The sky appeared to be the limit. With passer-friendly head coach Bobby Petrino taking over the reigns in Atlanta and backup Matt Schaub dealt away to Houston, the message was clear: Michael Vick was the man for the Atlanta Falcons, and he was the man for your fantasy football team as well. And then, in a flash, it was all gone.

The shame of it all is that this situation was as easy for Vick to avoid as it was impossible for defenses to stop him when he came to play. Now, on Monday Night Football, instead of legions of fantasy owners holding their collective breath on every snap, their playoff outcomes hanging in the balance, we are left to watch reporters talking on courtroom steps, as the man who could have been the most dominant force in fantasy football fades into the background.

What might have been ... a fantasy. What it is ... a shame.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.