"Michael Vick has a neck injury. He has been taken to the locker room for observation."
-- press box announcement/annual refrain
ATLANTA -- They booed Michael Vick as he walked to the locker room, a doctor and a trainer and a security guy clearing a path. Vick acknowledged his taunters by pointing to the scoreboard, which showed the Eagles leading at the time. In a back-and-forth game, it was temporary consolation. The homecoming was short-circuited by more of the punishment that seems to be Vick's destiny to endure.
The evening was bloodsport, nothing less, and Vick did not survive intact. The Atlanta Falcons came at the Eagles with a physical ferocity that danced near the line of propriety for much of the night, and which stomped over the line once or twice. Dunta Robinson, who gave DeSean Jackson a concussion last season with an illegal, head-to-head hit, clobbered Jeremy Maclin just as illegally last night. That was the most notorious act, but not the only one.
Vick was banged around and then banged around some more. The play on which he was hurt, deep into the third quarter, was more of the same -- thrown to the turf, kind of whipped around, his head maybe then colliding with teammate Todd Herremans. The result was the quarterback, laid out in a pile, and then unsteady on his feet, and then escorted to the sideline where he reportedly was spitting blood.
That was his night, then: booed by his former fans in his former hometown, then bloodied, then banished to a medical evaluation.
And with that, and the Eagles' 35-31 loss to the Falcons, we are now to be consumed with the doubt about Vick that follows this quarterback like a shadow.
Vick got hit too much last year, and he got hit too much last week against St. Louis, and he got hit too much against the Falcons. He missed four games last year and was less effective at the end of the season because he was so beaten up. He knows the issue, everybody knows the issue, but here we are again. Here we are, wondering if they can count on him being there long enough, and healthy enough, for them to win a championship.
This was going to be his night. The No. 7 jerseys came in two denominations and at least four colors: red, white, black and green. For all of the people wearing them in the Georgia Dome, and for everyone else watching, Vick meant something just a little bit different.
Hero, villain, victim, role model, convicted felon, reformed citizen; those are just some of the sociological labels that people will argue over for as long as Vick is a public man. That is a given. That is not the issue.
Because here is the other list: dynamic, fearless, reckless, careless, courageous, confounding. They are not about the man, but about the football player. That is the problem.
Vick is in his third season of his second professional lifetime, and we still do not know. He is at the beginning of a significant financial agreement with the Eagles at a critical point for the franchise, and we still do not know.
Breathtaking runner. Then turnover-plagued runner. Then fearless pocket passer willing to take a wallop. Then author of a brutal interception.
Red, white, black, green. Which?
And can he stay healthy?
This is more than about the ups and downs of playing the hardest position in professional sports. Quarterbacks make mistakes. Everybody gets it. The difference here is that Vick always seems to be on the high wire, always seconds away either from taking our breath away or leaving us to let loose with an anguished gasp.
Maybe the problem is that all of us watch the game through eyes accustomed to Donovan McNabb, who played a steady, predictable, effective style of game for years with the Eagles. That might be some of it -- because Vick is admittedly so jarringly different.
Whatever the reason, here we are.