NFL, Falcons could ask Vick to focus energies in court

ATLANTA -- In what has quickly evolved into a collaborative effort that includes input of officials from the NFL, NFL Players Association and Atlanta Falcons, embattled quarterback Michael Vick could be urged to take a voluntary leave of absence to focus his energy on the legal challenges from a federal dogfighting indictment confronting him, sources said.

There are, however, two critical components that must be resolved: Falcons owner Arthur Blank must be on board with a plan that has generated considerable discussion at the league level the past two days. And Vick, who might be reluctant to accept even a paid hiatus from the game, might have to be convinced that the leave could be his best option.

Blank and the Falcons might also be considering other options.

Under the leave-of-absence scenario, and given the projected timeline of any trial that could ensue from the federal indictments brought against the quarterback Tuesday, all parties would enter into the agreement, if it is consummated, with the expectation that Vick would probably miss the entire 2007 season.

While the concept of a leave has been broached conceptually to associates and advisors of Vick, it has not yet been formally presented to the Falcons' star. Vick, 27, could be briefed about the possibility of a paid leave of absence as early as Friday. He would likely be granted time to consider the suggestion, which would almost certainly have to be communicated by Blank, with a decision not coming until early next week.

It has become clear, as high-level discussions have progressed, that all the parties involved in the talks are desperately seeking a resolution to a potential public relations disaster before the Falcons begin training camp Thursday. A league source acknowledged Thursday that "something one way or the other is going to have to happen ... by the start of training camp."

As incentive for Vick to consider a leave, the union is hopeful that Blank will offer to guarantee the player's $6 million base salary for 2007. That could be a sticking point in negotiations. No one will try to bully Vick into accepting the leave, but he might be reminded that while the league and Falcons are inclined for now to allow due process to play out in the courts, that stance is not an unalterable one, and unfolding events could possibly change the approach of Blank and commissioner Roger Goodell.

Sources said that NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw spoke directly with Vick late Thursday. A union official did not divulge details of the conversation.

Multiple sources at various levels of the ongoing discussions acknowledged that a consensus was beginning to galvanize that nobody, including Vick, will benefit by the quarterback playing the 2007 season under a cloud of suspicion and burden of the federal indictment. In the indictment, Vick is alleged to have conspired in an illegal dogfighting venture conducted on property he owns in Surry County, Va.

Intensive talks continued Thursday with Goodell, Blank, Falcons team president and general manager Rich McKay and Upshaw. They discussed the various options available to them, and those discussions are expected to continue Friday.

If convicted on all counts, Vick could face a prison sentence of six years.

Neither Vick nor his attorney or agent could be reached for comment Thursday night. Blank also was unavailable for comment, and a Falcons spokesman referred to the owner's statement released earlier Thursday in which he expressed that "we are working diligently on exploring our options."

"The commissioner is concerned about the seriousness of the charges, and he wants to make sure Vick focuses on putting up the most appropriate defense," a source said. "Vick has to be convinced that it is in his best interests to take a leave of absence ... I think it's fair to say nobody's really comfortable with him playing under these circumstances."

Even a close Vick associate acknowledged early Friday that is the case.

Said the associate: "There's been a lot of stuff going on the last day or so, but the one thing that keeps getting clearer and clearer is that they don't want [Vick] around. The Falcons, the league, they know it's a mess and it's only going to get uglier if camp starts and he's on the field. If he's not [present for camp], at least there's a little bit of 'out of sight, out of mind,' you know? It removes the source of distraction. Otherwise, it's just [untenable]."

A leave of absence would at least temporarily address several possible dilemmas for the Falcons, including how to handle Vick's contract if he does not report to camp on time. And it would enable the franchise, even if Vick doesn't play in 2007, to retain his contractual rights. Vick is scheduled for a bond hearing and his arraignment hearing Thursday, the same day the Falcons hold their initial camp practice under first-year coach Bobby Petrino.

Without an excused absence, Vick could technically be in default of his contract if he does not report to camp on time, perhaps providing the Falcons the right to attempt to recover bonus money already paid to him. There are default provisions, described by one source with close knowledge of Vick's contract as "very tight language," written into the lucrative 10-year extension he signed in December 2004. Vick advisors spent time Thursday discussing the potential default ramifications with NFLPA officials.

Members of the NFL management council, the labor arm of the league, earlier this week began closely reviewing Vick's contract to see what options might be available to Blank and the Falcons if they try to recover any bonus payments.

The 2004 extension has long been advertised as a 10-year, $130 million contract. In reality, because the final season of the contract voided as soon as Vick reached minimum playing-time thresholds, it is a nine-year deal worth about $118 million. Vick has banked more than $40 million, but $37 million of that was in bonuses -- an initial signing bonus of $7.5 million and then subsequent roster bonuses of $22.5 million and $7 million. But for salary-cap purposes, the Falcons exercised an option to convert the roster bonuses into signing bonuses.

That might seem incidental because Vick got all the money coming to him anyway. But if the Falcons attempt at some point to force Vick into paying back part of the bonus money, how the conversions are interpreted might be a point of contention. A ruling in a grievance case involving former Denver first-round wide receiver Ashley Lelie last year made it more difficult for teams to seek repayment of option or roster bonuses.

Atlanta officials might contend that the two most recent bonuses paid Vick, totaling $29.5 million, were converted to signing bonuses, and that they should be permitted to pursue a prorated share of that money. The Vick camp would likely counter that, while the money was paid as signing bonuses, it was actually earned as roster bonuses.

But any contentiousness, and a possible arbitration hearing, could be avoided if Vick accepts a proposal for a leave of absence, one in which all parties agree he will miss camp.

"It would certainly give everyone some much-needed breathing room," said one league source late Thursday night. "People could get on with their business."

Make no mistake, for both the Falcons and the NFL, there is clearly a business component attached to the Vick case.

The league faces a backlash, not only from animal-rights groups but from others, as well. And in the statement Blank released Thursday, he noted his responsibility to his sponsors. The team recently entered into an agreement with Russell Athletic in which the apparel maker will pay $1 million to $2 million annually to sponsor the Falcons' training camp. It could be a camp disrupted by protests if Vick attends.

In other developments on Friday, Michael Vick signed a document called a Return to Summons. His signature is more of a scrawl on the summons, given at the U.S. Marshall's office, where he was also fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken.
Signing the summons means he officially knows he's due in court next Thursday for his bond hearing and arraignment.
A spokesman in the U.S. Attorney's Office says it was highly unusual to have a defendant come to court early.

In another Vick-related matter, the quarterback's camp has begun interviewing candidates to beef up his legal defense team in the event he goes to trial. Vick's longtime personal attorney, Lawrence Woodward, is expected to remain part of the defense team, but advisors have urged that the Falcons' star to consider adding counsel with experience in federal courts.

The Vick camp has solicited recommendations and is believed to have interviewed at least one prominent defender from the prestigious Washington, D.C., firm of Wilmer Hale.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Television reporter Chris Mortensen covers the NFL for ESPN.