Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass...

Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Washington Redskins. (Nov. 15, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA - A faint smile crossed Michael Vick's lips Wednesday as he pondered the question.

Coming off one of the most exceptional performances in NFL history, in which he threw for four touchdowns and ran for two, Vick was asked if he'd ever thought about what his life might have been like had he been with the Eagles from the start of his career.

Vick said that only a few days ago, even before Monday night's transcendent performance in a 59-28 rout of the Redskins, he asked himself the same question.

"If I could have started my career here, where would I be now?" Vick asked rhetorically. "Would I have ended up in some of the things I've been involved in? You never know. You can only think about it and wonder and appreciate being in this position now. But I have thought about it."

It wasn't long ago that Vick, 30, was contemplating - from inside Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas - whether his life would ever be close to what it was before being convicted in 2007 of operating an illegal dog-fighting operation at his home in Surry County, Va. Vick once was one of the best and wealthiest players in the NFL, and his downfall was one of the most shocking and complete in sports history.

This was no fall from grace; this was a plunge into the abyss.

But his resurgence has been nearly as swift and almost as stunning. After being barred from the NFL for two full seasons and losing a fortune estimated at $100 million, Vick has re-emerged dramatically in his second season with the Eagles. After backing up Donovan McNabb last year and serving as Kevin Kolb's backup at the start of this season, Vick is the starter for a 6-3 team considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender because of the quarterback's renaissance.

Once known as a great scrambler who was limited as a downfield passer because of his unwillingness to study defensive tendencies, Vick has blossomed into a more well-rounded performer. He's thrown 11 TD passes and is the only NFL starter who has yet to throw an interception this season.

"He's playing great," said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who will face Vick Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field. "He's reading defenses and delivering the ball better as a pocket passer, which makes him almost impossible to stop."

The transformation has been remarkable at every level.

"We're watching a man who not only paid his debt for his wrong and openly acknowledged that he was wrong, has committed to doing right and is now doing right," said Atlanta-based attorney David Cornwell, who has represented several NFL players with legal problems, including Ben Roethlisberger and Donte' Stallworth.

"My view is that it's so authentic, you almost just want to watch in quiet respect and soak it in. He deserves to be embraced with the same passion that he was vilified. This kind of transformation should be as much of a story as his downfall."

As a player, Vick has rarely been this good, mostly because he is now willing to stand in the pocket longer, rather than run at the first hint of trouble. As a person, he has made a commitment toward raising awareness of the behavior that led to the abuse, torture and execution of under-performing dogs in his Bad Newz Kennels. Before being sentenced, Vick admitted he was personally involved in the torture and killing of up to eight dogs.

But after serving his time and losing nearly everything, Vick insists he will never engage in any more destructive behavior. "I'm doing the right things on and off the field," he said.

As part of his reinstatement to the NFL, Vick agreed to speak at two events per month with young people considered at risk to get involved in dog fighting.

"It's a great opportunity for me to show that I basically want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem," Vick said. "I want to help in any way I can and try to put a stop to dog fighting. It's a work in progress, but you have to start somewhere."

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said he believes Vick is sincere.

"He has certainly fulfilled all the pledges he's made to me, and by all accounts he appears to be committed to the principles we stand for," Pacelle said. "We've done many events together, and every time I see him, he seems to be enjoying the opportunity to do good and to make amends for the terrible things he's done."

But many animal-rights advocates still believe Vick should not have had the chance to revive his NFL career.

One is Garrett Elwood, a lifelong Philadelphian who recently founded NokillPhiladelphia, a volunteer group that tries to improve conditions in the city's animal shelters. Elwood said he grew up an Eagles fan but refuses to root for the team because of Vick's presence.

"When I heard he signed, I was absolutely floored," he said. "What kind of message does that send to kids? It doesn't sit right with me, and I haven't been able to watch the Eagles since. It's almost like saying it's OK what he did. I think the general feeling in the animal welfare community in Philadelphia is that he hasn't redeemed himself."

Pacelle acknowledges the intense divisions within the animal-rights community about Vick, but defends the Humane Society's willingness to partner with him.

"There's no group that puts more focus on anti-animal fighting activities than the Humane Society," Pacelle said. "We were already employing ex-dog fighters to help turn around the social phenomenon of street fighting.

" . . . Using Vick as a former dog fighter and an African American who grew up in a challenging setting at a lot of levels, he has the potential to be a really important ambassador."

Vick understands the continued controversy, although the strength of the protests has dwindled substantially.

"I don't have to think about going back down that path, because it's not going to happen,'' he said. "I can live my life with a clear mind every day knowing that I'm moving forward."

He is determined to stay away from people he associated with in dog fighting.

"A lot of people don't have access to me, so they can't reach me anymore, which is a good thing," Vick said. "I've totally separated myself from a lot of people and now I'm just dealing with the people that I know and love and care about me."

Those who know Vick best say they see a genuinely transformed individual. Longtime NFL kicker Jay Feely was his Falcons teammate from 2001-04.

"What he did was wrong and there are no excuses for it, but when you talk with him one-on-one, you can see the change, and you can see that it's genuine," Feely said. "He was broken and had lost everything and was willing to take direction, which he had never been able to do before. You can see the difference personally and in the kind of player he is."

After spending last season reacclimating to the NFL, then getting a chance to start when Kolb got hurt this September, Vick is playing even better than he did in Atlanta. The Pro Football Hall of Fame requested that he send Monday night's game jersey to the Canton, Ohio, museum.

"I'll probably never have another day like that in my career," he said. "It shows hard work pays off. Now I've got to maintain humility and keep pushing and never be satisfied."

Eagles coach Andy Reid attributes Vick's remarkable improvement to his willingness to learn and work. Vick recently admitted he usually was the last one in and the first one out with the Falcons from 2001-07. Now he is one of the Eagles' most diligent players.

"If a player doesn't want to absorb it, then he's not going to want to absorb it," Reid said. "But Michael, since he's been here, has been just a sponge with things, taking everything in, trying it and then relaying that from practice to the game. Most of the credit goes to him and his approach to the game.

"He said he was the last guy to get there and one of the first ones out, but it hasn't been that way here. He's really one of the first ones in and one of the last ones out."

The results have been breathtaking. Where his first inclination used to be to run if a play broke down, he is much more patient in the pocket and willing to go through his progressions. He'll still run, as evidenced by his two touchdowns Monday, but he also will trust in his newfound ability to know when he should stick with a play.

"We're not changing the mechanics,'' Vick said, "it's changing things that help with accuracy, like your balance, having your feet in the proper position."

Vick can only imagine how far along he'd be as a quarterback - and as a man - had he been an Eagle all along.

"I can't say what we would have accomplished,'' he said, "but as far as my growth in the passing game, it would have been expedited tremendously."

But Vick won't spend too much time focusing on what might have been. After all, there is too much to look forward to. He knows how lucky he is to have a second chance.

"I think about it all the time," he said. "Every time I step out on the field on game day, it's like Christmas to me. I went from being in a prison cell and watching football in prison to having an opportunity to play the game I love."

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