The Michael Vick conundrum

It would have been quite a bit easier had Michael Vick returned from prison and remained a mediocre backup. If he'd spent a couple of years wearing a headset as an aging helmet-slapper -- you know, like his brother-in-bankruptcy, Mark Brunell -- before being released, nobody would really have to confront their feelings about the guy. When it was over, when the experiment ran its course, the Eagles could have publicly said they were glad to have him while privately saying they were glad to be rid of the animal-rights protests and the rap sheet.

But now what? What do we do about Vick now?

Because he's good. He's really good. Some people are already tossing around letters like MVP, which is crazy at this point, but there's no denying the man's talent and on-field charisma. Andy Reid might have botched the process he used to name Vick his starting quarterback, but he picked the right guy. And no matter how good Kevin Kolb might be (someday), there should be no quarterback controversy in Philadelphia. Vick is the man.

It appears he can do just about anything he wants out there. (I know, wait 'til he faces a good pass defense, which won't happen this Sunday against the Redskins or next Sunday against the 49ers, either.) He's standing in the pocket, buying time with his legs and keeping his eyes downfield unless there's a compelling reason against it. In other words, he's displaying all of those pocket QB talents a lot of NFL people thought he'd never have the discipline to learn.

So that's the easy part. The human side of it is much more difficult. Discussing Vick's remarkable ability to work his way back into the national discussion -- as a football player, not as a totem for Everything That's Wrong With Everything -- after 18 months in Leavenworth is unlike anything I can remember in the last 30 years.

Is this a heartwarming comeback story? No, not even close. But you watch: It's about to become one.

It's a great sports story, and a story of a great athlete whose gifts are both resilient and singular. But everybody always wants more than that. It has to transcend sports. It has to be about heartbreak and redemption. There has to be a moment of clarity for Vick, when he saw the error of his ways and redoubled his efforts to regain everything he lost. And if there are visions of suffering dogs running through his mind as he pushes himself to run that extra set of sprints, all the better.

We do black and white. Gray has a tendency to elude our grasp.

It's already starting. The post-Sunday dissections included a healthy scoop of false Americana. You know the routine: "We're the land of second chances" and "We're a forgiving nation." Aside from being laughably wrong -- we do intolerance and rigidity when it fits our purpose -- it doesn't pertain to Vick in the slightest. He's not playing that game, and he doesn't seem interested in watching you play it, either.

During the Raiders-Cardinals telecast Sunday, one of the announcers described Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski by saying, "He just looks like someone you want to root for." Aside from Gradkowski looking like a mediocre backup, I'm not quite sure what that means. Apparently, the "you" the announcer was citing is someone who appreciates the nuances of quarterbacks who are easy to root for but hard to watch as they struggle to see past the line of scrimmage. It was Raiders-Cardinals, so it wasn't the first string, but still.

The point is, no announcer would ever think of saying that about Vick. (And no, this isn't about race, because Donovan McNabb looks more like someone I want to root for than Gradkowski. He's sure as hell easier to watch play the game.) Vick, by contrast, is nobody's role model. He committed some truly repellent crimes, and his apologies have been more perfunctory than vein-opening. There's a wariness about him that suggests a man who understands just how much of himself he can afford to parcel out to the public.

He seems to know, maybe better than we do, that America is a great land for second chances only as long as you perform. We're a country that values winners over the redeemed. The redemption we're seeking is often just the excuse to feel good about rooting for someone whose past is thoroughly distasteful.

Vick doesn't want to be your feel-good story. He just wants to be the bad-ass who happens to be the most riveting performer in the NFL. Let's keep it that way, shall we?

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.