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Pittsburgh Steelers Sign Michael Vick — A Question of Team Character?

Michael Vick

Michael Vick

Once upon a time, Pittsburgh Steelers fans hated their quarterback.

It didn't really matter who it was. From 1983, when Terry Bradshaw could play only a quarter in his final season, to 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger became the Steelers' signal-caller, Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox all had their day as Pittsburgh's primary starting quarterback.

All seven of these quarterbacks took the Steelers to the playoffs. Yet bring up any of these names to a Steelers fan who saw them play, and their reaction is likely to be negative.

Frustrations with Maddox when he slumped in 2005 or Landry Jones in his recent preseason performances aside, the vitriol Steelers fans gave their on-field leader has gone away since Roethlisberger took over.

But wait, Steelers fans can go back to having contempt for their quarterback. Only now it isn't the starter, it's new backup Michael Vick.

Vick is a polarizing figure. Say what you will about paying his debt to society for running an illegal dog fighting ring, there is an evil element in the act neither prison time nor upbringing absolves.

Mike Tyson did not become a figure of character after serving his prison sentence for rape, and his status as the contemporary face of boxing may be as much a cause for the demise of the heavyweight division as anything.

While the Steelers' popularity will not diminish with Vick's place on the roster, it will create at least a contemporary mainstream identity for the franchise that will be uncomfortable.

Consider that:

* The Steelers’ two most well-known quarterbacks will have both served two of the most prominent suspensions in recent NFL history.

* Their top running back, Le'Veon Bell, will be suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season for illegal drug use.

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* After every other team had passed on him for illegal drug use during the NFL Scouting Combine, the Steelers drafted Mike Adams in the second round of the 2012 draft. He later was involved in a bizarre late-night incident in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood where he claimed to have been stabbed and a carjacking victim, only to find the defendants acquitted and Adams' own actions in the ugly incident questioned. 

* Other high-profile Steelers have been involved in controversy in recent times. Wide receiver Cedric Wilson was released in 2008 after being charged with assault of his girlfriend at a Pittsburgh restaurant. In 2011, running back Rashard Mendenhall tweeted criticism of people celebrating Osama bin Laden being brought to justice. The Steelers also signed running back Isaac Redman in 2009 after being passed up in the draft despite pleading guilty to criminal sexual conduct in high school.

* Even Jerome Bettis, one of the most popular and engaging people to ever play for the Steelers, admitted to being a drug dealer in his formative years in Detroit in the days prior to his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement this month.

The signing of Vick comes at a curious time. Even with the season-ending finger injury suffered by primary backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski last Sunday, third-stringer Landry Jones engineered two touchdown drives of 60 and 54 yards to lead the Steelers to a 24-19 preseason victory against Green Bay.

Though Jones' performances prior to this game have been underwhelming, the Steelers have kept him on their roster for the previous two seasons. It is an odd, though understandable, circumstance that only after his most successful game that the Steelers choose to stagnate Jones’ career.  

True, Vick has more upside potential. Just last year he led the New York Jets to a 20-13 upset of the Steelers.

He also made $5 million. Initial media reports have him earning $1 million this season. So is such a salary wise for a player everyone ultimately hopes will not play?

Furthermore, swapping Jones with Vick for backup quarterback duties is swapping a devout individual for Ron Mexico.

In a previous generation character was an integral part of the Steelers' team makeup.

Now, we have to ask how important the Steelers’ front office considers character when choosing players.

That can't be a good thing.

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.