Controversy swirling, Vick sticks to plan

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If noted X's and O's designer Bobby Petrino can coach up Michael Vick half as well as the guy who tutored the Atlanta quarterback for a Friday morning media session following a minicamp practice, you can book the Falcons for Super Bowl XLII.

Only if someone had stood before him holding cue cards could Vick have offered a more rehearsed performance. For a player whose success in six NFL seasons has been predicated largely on his remarkable improvisational skills, Vick uncharacteristically stuck to the game plan drawn up by his advisers.

In his first comments since a Thursday morning story on SI.com cited "sources who have known Vick well for years," saying that they are "convinced" he was involved in a dog-fighting ring in Virginia, the Falcons' quarterback was a model of the mundane. Anyone expecting a fiery response to what might well turn out to be an incendiary situation left here mightily disappointed.

Football at this time of year in Georgia, now that spring practice has ended for the Bulldogs, will never be the kind of three-ring circus evoked in other NFL precincts by players running around in T-shirts and shorts. But the vexing Vick problems made Friday at least a two-ring production. Vick on center stage can be riveting theater. On Friday, it wasn't the stuff of off-Broadway, but rather a drama with a guy trying to get off the hot seat.

For much of the two-hour on-field practice, the first mandatory minicamp session of Petrino's stewardship, Vick atypically stood in the pocket and delivered laser passes to receivers. After the workout, he sat in the bleachers, moving only to shift his weight on a couple of occasions.

By unofficial count, there were eight questions posed to Vick, including two football-related queries from Falcons radio analyst David Archer that all but broke the stride of anyone remotely attempting to develop a harder line of interrogation. Archer played quarterback for the Falcons in the '80s when times were similarly tough for the franchise. So maybe Archer considers himself a comrade-in-arms to the current practitioner at the position.

He certainly tossed Vick a couple life preservers. Not that it mattered much because, having been thoroughly prepped for the moment, Vick wasn't about to waver.

Vick wasn't quite contrived but neither was the Falcons' quarterback compassionate. Or, for that matter, passionate, period. Instead, he seemed like a guy who, while accustomed to the spotlight, had forgotten what it was like when the glare turned harsh. He spoke precisely 334 words in less than five minutes and, had the Falcons simply issued a news release enunciating the same essentials, the piece of paper on which it was written might have possessed more life.

As far as drama on Friday, well, there was none. Club officials debated whether to have Vick speak, decided it would have been worse to render him off-limits than to subject him to maybe five minutes worth of questions, and sent him out to meet the media masses. In short, he did what he had to do.

The standard Vick line when asked about his potential off-field problems: "It is still under investigation, and once it is over, we will talk about it. As of right now, I cannot talk about the situation."

He was asked about dog-fighting. About the house Vick owns in Virginia but in which he doesn't reside. About how the stories of his string of indiscretions have been portrayed in the media. About the quarterback's recent sit down with Arthur Blank in which the Falcons owner reportedly took a "stern" stance with the man who is the face of his franchise. And Vick, in lock-step with his professional handlers (read: attorneys), kept responding with nonanswers.

Said the embattled Falcons star, inarguably one of the NFL's highest-profile players: "Don't plan on talking about me anymore unless it's about football."

Until his off-field issues are resolved, and perhaps even after there is some conclusion to the seemingly nonstop tumult that has swirled around Vick, the nonfootball items are going to continue to be an item. Vick did manage this week to divest himself of the infamous Virginia property on which local authorities recently discovered three dozen allegedly abused dogs during a drug raid. His asking price for a home assessed at $747,000 was $350,000, and the fire sale price tag probably reflects Vick's desperation to unload the place.

He won't so easily unburden himself of his current collection of distractions. Divesting himself of that pack of problems, spit-polishing an image tarnished by implication and innuendo, and possibly by his dubious judgments in some of the associates with whom Vick has surrounded himself, will take a whole lot more than a "For Sale By Owner" sign prominently planted in the front yard.

In a front-page story in Friday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Blank told beat reporter Steve Wyche that "from the facts we have so far, it's [the dog-fighting investigation] not a pretty picture. It's clearly an issue, and we'll wait and see what revolves around it."

Blank counseled Vick, he said in the story, about the potential loss of lucrative endorsement deals. And he acknowledged the unthinkable, that Vick could be suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Falcons could be forced to play part of the season without their most critical offensive component.

While there wasn't a palpable sense of impending doom hanging over the well-manicured practice fields here, the Falcons are a team that seems preoccupied. It's as if quarterback-in-waiting Joey Harrington, the new $6 million insurance policy, is waiting for the next shoe to drop.

That said, Vick's teammates remain supportive, even though several appeared annoyed and even frustrated by the predictable onslaught of questions about him.

"If something happens [to Vick], it would be a shame, but we'll deal with it," said two-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who also attended Virginia Tech. "But I believe him when he says there is nothing going on. I have to believe him."

Team officials continue to emphasize, and justifiably so, that Vick hasn't been charged with anything. And no matter how guilty Vick is of flawed judgments or poor choices, that's the case, at least for now.

It is notable that, when Vick emerged from the locker room after toweling down following practice, he was wearing a T-shirt the Falcons issued to players during their weightlifting program. Emblazoned across the back was a three-word message: Pay the price.

The Falcons and probably much of the league's public relations machine are hoping that, for Vick, that's not an omen.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.