Has Vick run his course in Atlanta?

ATLANTA - So it turns out Michael Vick was NOT carrying a water bottle laced with marijuana on his way through the Miami airport.

Case closed, right?


Even though Vick was cleared of possible drug charges following his WaterBottleGate encounter with the TSA, there's still a very vocal segment of the football-watching audience in Atlanta that believes it's time for the Falcons to get rid of their quarterback.

Never mind that he's the face of the franchise. Never mind that he's the primary reason the Georgia Dome has been sold out for every game since No. 7 took over as the starter. Never mind that he's only 26. Never mind that he still has a winning record when taking the snaps, despite dismal finishes to the last two seasons.

It's become very apparent that Vick can never do enough to satisfy some people. Granted, he's unlikely to ever grace the top of the league's passing statistics, but he did have a hand (and legs) in more than 3,500 yards this season; only eight quarterbacks did better. For those who might have forgotten, he threw a career-high 20 touchdown passes and became the first QB ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

In light of Atlanta's mediocre group of receivers and a West Coast-style offensive scheme that never seemed to mesh with Vick's freewheeling style, it's hard to blame the quarterback for a 7-9 finish that led to the firing of coach Jim Mora.

Still, Vick has become a lightning rod for all that ails the Falcons - and the incident at Miami International Airport last week only fueled Internet and talk-show chatter about what should happen next.

How much of this was legitimate criticism, the product of playing a position that always gets too much credit when things go right and too much blame when things go wrong? How much of this was lingering resistance to a quarterback who doesn't just sit in the pocket and throw the football? How much of this was full-fledged racism, spurred on by those who don't want their team being led by a black man with cornrows in his hair and big diamonds in each ear?

Even the Falcons hierarchy seemed quick to blame Vick when police said he was reluctant to give up a bottle that smelled of marijuana and had a secret compartment. The quarterback was quickly summoned to a meeting at team headquarters with owner Arthur Blank, general manager Rich McKay and new coach Bobby Petrino.

When compared to the off-the-field pursuits of other NFL players - fights, police chases, killings - this was pretty minor stuff. Vick wasn't arrested at the airport. As it turned out, he wasn't even charged with a crime.

Still, the team came down hard on No. 7.

''I think he understands how upset we all are that this situation occurred,'' McKay said last week. ''I think he knows when it comes to a franchise in the NFL, the quarterback is looked at as the centerpiece player. There is a lot of focus and maybe in our case, even more. He knows he let a lot of people down. Not just the coaches, not just me, not just Arthur Blank, but the fans. We were very clear in discussing that.''

Of course, the whole episode does raise some legitimate questions about Vick's judgment. If he wasn't carrying anything illegal, why did he allegedly balk at turning over the water bottle in Miami? When he got back to Atlanta, why didn't he hold a news conference to strongly proclaim his innocence? Not surprisingly, there have already been whispers of a cover-up to prevent further embarrassment to the all-powerful NFL.

Just one day after Vick was cleared of any wrongdoing, talk of a trade heated up. There was a highly suspect report that Oakland was pursuing a deal and might offer up receivers Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and the No. 1 pick in the draft.

''Write this down,'' Atlanta spokesman Reggie Roberts said. ''We are not trading Michael Vick.''

But one must wonder if irreparable damage was done in the delicate relationship between player and team - especially with the Falcons facing a decision on backup quarterback Matt Schaub, a soon-to-be free agent who has the look of a future starter and hasn't been overshadowed by extracurricular issues.

Vick's image already was tarnished by a sordid lawsuit (since settled) that accused him of knowingly infecting a woman with a sexually transmitted disease and using the alias ''Ron Mexico'' while seeking treatment. This season, he made things worse by flashing an obscene hand gesture to heckling Atlanta fans as he walked off the field following a dismal loss to New Orleans.

Now this.

An image-conscious owner such as Blank could decide that his team would be better off with a more traditional quarterback such as Schaub, while surrounding him with a stronger supporting cast (assuming the Falcons came up with a profitable deal for Vick).

But before Atlanta pursues a trade, here's a few things to consider:

Vick puts people in the seats.

Vick wins games.

Vick does things that no other quarterback can do.

A guy like that might be worth keeping around.