Beginning of end for Vick in Atlanta?

The Falcons put all of their hopes for 2007 in the hands of Michael Vick. Despite Tuesday's indictment of Vick in a Virginia dogfighting probe, the Falcons have no choice but to stand by him. The reason: Atlanta traded Vick's possible replacement, Matt Schaub, to Houston. At the time, it seemed to be the wise thing, and an indictment doesn't necessarily make that situation any different.

Owner Arthur Blank hired Bobby Petrino to make Vick a better quarterback. The owner believes Petrino's imaginative college style could be creative enough to make Vick a more accomplished thrower. Vick's dedication in spending extra time working at the team facility this offseason gave Blank hope that his plan was correct.

The problem facing Vick and the Falcons now is the case, which could consume most of the season, and could bring down the team. Blank must presume Vick is innocent and let the legal process take its course. Commissioner Roger Goodell must do the same. Vick must be treated as a first-time offender in the league's new conduct policy, so he must be found guilty or admit guilt before the commissioner can suspend him.

While standing by Vick appears to be the short-term solution, there should be no doubt 2007 is the beginning of the end of the Vick era in Atlanta. Blank is a businessman who espouses high principles. Vick is the face of the franchise and a sports icon in the Southeast. Whether he's guilty or innocent, Vick would have to prove the federal government made a major mistake in indicting him to salvage his reputation throughout the area.

Cases such as these are hard to prove. Nevertheless, whatever evidence is presented against Vick is going to cause permanent damage. Dogfighting is an illegal and disgusting sport. A sports star can't be linked to such activity. Watch how fast sponsors and advertisers bail on Vick now.

From the football side, though, Petrino and Blank must let Vick report to training camp and be the starter for this season. Joey Harrington is the backup. While Harrington did some good things in resurrecting his career in Miami, he is not going to make the Falcons a playoff team, and Blank and Petrino aren't going to accept anything less than a playoff trip.

With the indictment hanging over him, though, Vick can't go into seclusion. He'll be asked questions about the case at every news conference. For now, the 2007 season belongs to Vick. But one gets the feeling it's going to be an ugly ending to an era in Atlanta sports that started with so much promise.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.