ATLANTA - Horrified by the dogfighting allegations against their star player, the Atlanta Falcons planned to suspend quarterback Michael Vick for four games until the NFL asked them to hold off while the league conducts its own investigation.
What remains unclear: Has Vick played his final game for Atlanta?
'This sort of behavior is really horrific,' Falcons owner Arthur Blank said Tuesday, the team's first public comment since Vick was indicted last week. 'This is certainly not the player or the person that I knew the last six years.'
The Falcons said they have discussed cutting Vick and seemed to signal he will miss at least a fourth of the season even if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't impose his own punishment against the quarterback, indicted on federal charges of sponsoring a dogfighting operation.
Most tellingly, Blank said he would encourage Vick to give up any thoughts of playing while the case is pending - even if it means sitting out the entire season. He is scheduled to be arraigned in Richmond, Va., on Thursday, the same day the Falcons open training camp.
'This is not about playing football in 2007,' said Blank, who was joined at a news conference by general manager Rich McKay and new coach Bobby Petrino. 'This is a very difficult process he'll be going through over the next couple of months. It's very difficult to do that and focus on football at the same time.'
Goodell weighed in on Vick's case during a news conference with NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw in Washington, where the two discussed an alliance to help former players.
'Let me make it very clear that the National Football League is very disappointed that Michael put himself in this position,' Goodell said. 'In no way do we think that dogfighting or anything related to dogfighting is acceptable. We think it's despicable, frankly.'
As for why he blocked an immediate suspension against Vick, Goodell said the league needed more time to study an indictment that is just a week old.
'We're looking at this from the long term,' he said. 'We understand how our fans are reacting to this. It is very emotional for all of us. But we have to remember that we are still at a state where these are charges. These are allegations.'
Under the league's collective bargaining agreement, a team can impose a four-game suspension for detrimental conduct. The league's new conduct policy allows Goodell to hand down a stiffer penalty.
'Prior to this, we were pursuing the maximum discipline, which is a four-game suspension,' Blank said. 'We had gone so far as to draft the letter. But the commissioner asked us not to take action until they completed their review.'
Clearly, the Falcons did not want to begin training camp with a quarterback who was under federal indictment, even though he led them to the NFC championship game during the 2004 season and last year became the first quarterback in league history to rush for 1,000 yards.
'There is certainly a reasonable potential that he's going to miss part - a significant part - of the regular season,' Blank said.
In April, investigators raiding a home owned by Vick in rural Virginia allegedly found evidence of dogfighting, include dozens of pit bulls, bloodstained carpeting, treadmills rigged up for training, veterinary supplies and 'breaking sticks' used to pry a dog's jaw apart.
At first, Vick denied any connection to the house, saying he never lived there and rarely visited. He blamed friends and family members for taking advantage of his generosity, an explanation that he apparently gave Goodell when the two held an impromptu meeting in New York during the draft.
Since then, Vick has denied any comment on the case.
Blank said he is deeply disturbed by the allegations, making a point to say that he counted Vick's name more than 50 times in the 18-page indictment. Vick and three associates are accused of killing dogs if they weren't strong enough to fight, with gruesome methods that included hanging, drowning, shooting and electrocution.
'There was no indication, no signs, no whispers that Michael could be involved in any of this kind of behavior,' McKay said.
In 2004, the Falcons signed Vick to the richest contract in NFL history at the time, a 10-year extension worth approximately $130 million. At the time, Blank said the deal would allow Vick to play his entire career in Atlanta.
Now, there's a distinct possibility that Vick's career with the Falcons is over, even though the team would take a debilitating salary cap hit over the next two years if he's released.
Vick's salary this season is
PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - kept up its pressure on the Falcons, sending three people to protest outside the headquarters of Blank's foundation, where the news conference was held. One of them carried a sign, 'Sack Vick.'
Later, PETA issued a statement. 'Because of the Falcons' willingness to suspend Vick, PETA is canceling plans to protest outside the Falcons' training camp on Thursday,' the statement said.
Instead, the statement said, PETA will demonstrate outside a NikeTown store in Atlanta on Thursday, demanding that Nike drop its corporate partnership with Vick.
Joey Harrington goes into camp as Atlanta's starting quarterback. His career record as a starter (23-43) hardly makes him a promising alternative, especially for a team that hired Petrino specifically because it felt he could bring out Vick's full potential.