FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – While the Atlanta Falcons certainly knew this day was coming, it still hurt to get the news officially:
Michael Vick will plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges, and the Falcons may need years to recover from the loss of their franchise player.
In agreeing to a plea deal Monday, Vick accepted the possibility of spending up to five years in prison and raised serious doubts about whether he will ever play again in the NFL. His career with the Falcons is almost certainly over.
Owner Arthur Blank vowed last week to "move very decisively" when he learned the extent of Vick's involvement in a gruesome dogfight ring that was discovered behind a home he owns in rural Virginia.
Those facts should come out at the plea hearing, scheduled for Monday in Richmond, Va.
In the meantime, the Falcons imposed a media blackout after Vick's plea deal, saying they were asked not to comment at the request of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"We are certainly troubled with the news today concerning Michael Vick's guilty plea to federal charges," the team said in a brief statement. "Commissioner Goodell has asked us not to take any action until he has completed his own review of Michael's situation. Accordingly, we will have no further comment until that time."
Blank attended a morning practice but slipped away from the Falcons suburban complex in a black van at about the same time news of Vick's guilty plea was breaking in Virginia. His driver stopped briefly when flagged down by two reporters, but said the owner would not speak.
"We were supposed to be somewhere five minutes ago," the driver said, before speeding off on a sweltering day.
The Falcons said no one in the organization would have any comment beyond their bland, 66-word statement. Team officials scurried around the complex, barring cameramen from shooting any video on the property or attempting to interview players and coaches.
In its own statement, the NFL said, "We totally condemn the conduct outlined in the charges, which is inconsistent with what Michael Vick previously told both our office and the Falcons."
The Vick case will have long-range implications for the Falcons, who signed him to a $130 million contract — the largest in NFL history at the time — late in the 2004 season.
The team already was prepared to eat Vick's $8.5 million salary cap hit this season, though the NFL is expected to grant a roster exemption.
Additionally, the Falcons are liable for about $15 million on next year's cap, though creative roster maneuvering would allow them to stretch out their liability beyond 2008. Also, the team can go after Vick to return a portion of the $44 million in bonus and guaranteed money he received in his contract; anything they get back would offset future cap obligations.
Certainly, the Falcons will feel the loss of Vick on the field. Joey Harrington, a flop in Detroit and Miami, has taken over the starting job by default. Chris Redman, who hasn't played in the NFL since 2003, is the only experienced backup.
"Things happen. This just happened to be something major," Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said after Vick's indictment. "It's affecting our city and our franchise right now."
In a sidebar that sums up the state of the franchise, the Falcons confirmed Monday that second-year quarterback D.J. Shockley will be lost for the year with a knee injury. He was battling with Redman for the backup job.
Even though he didn't play at all as a rookie, Shockley was one of the most popular players with both teammates and fans. He was a high school star in the Atlanta area and led Georgia to the Southeastern Conference championship in 2005.
When Vick was indicted shortly before the Falcons opened training camp last month, Goodell barred the quarterback from training camp while the league conducted its own investigation under a tougher personal conduct policy that took effect this year.
The Falcons were preparing to give Vick a four-game suspension — the stiffest punishment a team can impose for conduct issues — before Goodell asked them to hold off. Goodell already handed a one-year suspension to Tennessee cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who has been arrested numerous times but never convicted.
"We will conclude our own review under the league's personal conduct policy as soon as possible," the NFL statement said. "In the meantime, we have asked the Falcons to continue to refrain from taking action pending a decision by the commissioner."
Vick's Atlanta-based attorney, Daniel Meachum, said there have been no discussions with the league in recent days about the length of any suspension, which probably wouldn't take effect until the quarterback completed his sentence.
"There's no promise or even a request of the league to make a promise," Meachum said.
The attorney would not discuss what sentence Vick is expected to receive, though legal experts have speculated on anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
"I hope to be able to show the world that Michael is trying to piece his life together," Meachum said. "He's a good person, and hopefully he can play. But this is not about football. This is about a young man's life. Football is secondary."