Michael Vick has more to worry about at the moment than what Roger Goodell thinks. Or so it seems.
For one thing, he's going to jail, for a year at the minimum, possibly up to 18 months, perhaps a lot longer. That's assuming his guilty plea Monday in the federal case means Vick won't face state charges in Virginia.
``Mr. Vick has agreed ... to accept full responsibility for his actions and the mistakes he has made,'' lead defense attorney Billy Martin said in a statement.
Noble words aside, cutting a deal was Vick's only option. Three pals already told the feds what they know about the goings-on at ``Bad Newz Kennels.'' Had they testified in court to the grisly details outlined in their sworn statements, Vick's chances of an acquittal likely would have disappeared.
As it is, the Falcons could still go after the $22 million in signing-bonus money Vick already pocketed to cover the final three years of his contract. That would require owner Arthur Blank to keep Vick on the roster, a smart business move, but a potential public-relations disaster.
And no matter how things play out in Atlanta, Vick's chances of ever playing again in the NFL are down to slim and none.
That's where Goodell comes in. If there's a light at the end of the tunnel - calling it a flicker is hardly an exaggeration - the commissioner might be the one person capable of shining it.
He's already barred Vick from training camp while the league investigates, but reserved final judgment until the legal process has run its course.
``We're going to do what we always said we were going to do, which is rely on the facts,'' Goodell said during a tour of training camps last week. ``If there is some type of a plea agreement, then we will obviously take the time to understand what that plea is and we'll see how it fits into our personal conduct (policy).''
There are a number of good reasons why the commissioner should crumple Vick's future like a paper ball.
First, Vick denied involvement in the dogfighting ring, let alone financing the operation and, as one co-defendant said, personally taking part in the gruesome executions of animals that lost.
Second, the league and the commissioner have little to gain by letting Vick back in uniform. America loves pets, and the outrage the indictments sparked outside NFL headquarters spilled over into opening day at Falcons' training camp. There were sign-wielding protesters at the gates and a fly-over by a plane trailing a banner that read: ``New team name? Dog Killers?'' That was a taste of what Vick's next employer can expect.
Third, plenty of personnel directors and general managers already regarded Vick as a me-first personality with a questionable work ethic who would cause problems as a second-string quarterback. If reason No. 2 required Goodell to risk his credibility with the public, No. 3 could get him in hot water with a lot of the old-school NFL types.
But the bottom-line is this: Vick is going to be punished plenty.
The best-case scenario for Vick now is pull out his cell phone, apologize to Goodell and beg for a chance to return when the time is right. Then he serves his sentence, sits out a year under suspension, proves that he's deserving of another go-round in the NFL and attempts to come back for the 2009 season - at the earliest - when he's still only 29.
But Vick better not waste any time. Goodell said last week if a plea agreement was reached, he could rule on the case in less than two weeks. The guess here is the commissioner's decision will be influenced by how quickly and completely Vick accepts responsibility - so far, so good - and then makes amends.
Last December, a few months after he became commissioner, Goodell dropped by The Associated Press' headquarters for a get-acquainted meeting and sat for a 20-minute interview. The session was dominated by questions about the Cincinnati Bengals' long-running law-and-order saga. Goodell made clear he planned to be tough on lawbreakers - and he has.
Ask Pacman Jones, Chris Henry or Tank Johnson. Yet almost every phrase Goodell used in December that included the word ``punishment'' was followed quickly by another that included the word ``help.
At the moment, punishment still dominates the conversation about Vick. But down the road, after he's paid his debt, he'll need plenty of help, too.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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