Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick scrambles for a 19-yard gain during the second quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
FLOWERY BRANCH -- There will be no "my house" declarations from Michael Vick -- no matter how many fans at the Georgia Dome are cheering for him or wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey adorned with No. 7.
Maybe in his younger days, Vick could've been persuaded to say something Deion-like.
"That's not my house," Vick said Wednesday. "That's Matt Ryan's house. I'm just a visitor."
Vick is getting ready to face his former team for the second time since being released from federal prison and, by all indications, turning his once-wayward life around. Two years ago, he was just getting started on that reclamation project when he returned to Atlanta as a sparingly used backup for the Philadelphia Eagles.
He wound up throwing for one touchdown and running for another in a 34-7 rout, the few boos completely drowned out by the raucous cheers of Falcons fans who remembered the good times with him as their team's quarterback, before he was caught running a dogfighting operation.
That's a day he still talks about fondly.
"I just remember being in the Dome with the crowd cheering my name, which was special to me and all my teammates," Vick recalled. "They thought that was the greatest thing in the world. Everybody on the sideline came up to me to say how excited they were to be part of a situation like that. They had never seen it before."
He felt no need to repeat the pompous boast that Deion Sanders made after returning to the Dome and leading the 49ers to victory over his former team. "I built this house!" the Neon One said. "This is MY house."
Vick was gracious two years ago, and he remains that way preparing for another trip to Atlanta.
"I will always remember that day, and not for the plays I made," he said. "That was just a fraction of the joy I felt that day. It's just the appreciation from the Atlanta Falcons fans I felt that day, even though I was in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform."
Now, he's the Eagles' undisputed starter, complete with a $100 million contract, lofty expectations and the adulation of a new city.
Nothing personal, A-T-L, but Vick has moved on. He doesn't spend a lot of time assessing his career with the Falcons -- or what might've been.
"To be honest, I've not really thought about that in a while," Vick said in a conference call from Philadelphia. "It may cross my mind every once in a while, but I'm so thankful to be in Philly right now. I know things happen for a reason. Maybe it was meant for me to be here. I couldn't have landed in a better city, a better place. This is my home, this is where I want to be. I'm just thankful for that."
Ryan took over as the Falcons quarterback after Vick was sent to prison, and there are no complaints in these parts about the way things turned out with Matty Ice.
He's guided Atlanta to three straight winning seasons -- before that, there had never even been two in a row, not even with Vick -- and a pair of playoff appearances. The Falcons are the defending NFC South champions and are generally considered among the top Super Bowl contenders, a small group that also includes Vick's Eagles.
Ryan didn't play in that game two years ago. He was out with an injured toe. But he watched from the sideline as the crowd feted Vick as a returning hero. He understands the city's continuing love affair with No. 7, even though he hasn't taken a snap for the Falcons in nearly five years.
"Certainly, Mike was a great player down here and did some fantastic things and is going to have support from people in this city," Ryan said. "But I really feel like we've had great support the last three years that I've been down here and it's been a lot of fun to play down here."
The Falcons are more concerned about getting a win than dealing with the hoopla over Vick's return. They opened with an ugly 30-12 loss at Chicago, hardly looking like a team many have tapped to go all the way. Besides, there's only a handful of players left over from Vick's career in Atlanta.
"He wasn't here when I got here," middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We've got new guys, a new team. I don't think that's really relevant."
Roddy White, the Falcons' star receiver, is one of the few holdovers from Vick's Falcons. They're still close friends and talk to each other often, though rarely about football.
"We just talk about life, things like that. Football is the last thing we ever talk about," White said. "He's done a good job for all the misfortune that happened to him. To bounce back like that, he handled it well. I just hope he continues to handle it well."
But not this week, right?
"No, not this week," White said, breaking into a big grin. "Four picks."
Vick had plenty of success under Atlanta coaches Dan Reeves and Jim Mora. The Falcons were the first team ever to beat Green Bay in a playoff game at Lambeau Field, and they went all the way to the NFC championship game during the 2004 season (losing to the Eagles, in what would become an interesting twist).
But there was always a sense that Vick didn't quite live up to his potential, that he got by more on athletic ability than being a complete quarterback. For all the thrills he provided in Atlanta, that wasn't really No. 7 at his best.
For those who still feel a bit shortchanged, Vick asks for understanding. He hints at being given too much freedom with the Falcons, but doesn't want to sound like he's blaming anyone else for his problems.
"I was young when I was in Atlanta. The structure was just a little different," said Vick, who's now 31 years old and a decade removed from when he first entered the league with a rocket of a left arm and unparalleled running ability for a quarterback. "I could go into detail about it, but I won't. Like I said, I'm older now. I've been through a lot. I know I've always worked as hard as I can, just like I did in Atlanta. We made progress. We had some good years there. But the situation is different now.
"There's no need to talk about the past," he concluded. "Just move forward."
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