Whither Vince Young?

With the news that Tennessee wants Kerry Collins as its 2009 starter, it’s time to ask the hard question about one of sport’s most conflicted talents.

I had to look up “whither” for this post. I thought I knew essentially what it meant, but I had to make sure I had the spelling right and all that jazz. That’s not entirely like our view of Vince Young.

We think know he’s essentially a running quarterback; all of us remember him running all over USC in Pasadena, and many of us recall this overtime game-winner, done with his legs, from his rookie season.

But it’s very easy to forget that Young completed 30 of 40 passes in that game, totaling 267 yards through the air, and that he completed 62.3% of his passes in 2007, a mark that put him 16th in the NFL, squarely in the middle of the league, and ahead of Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers, and the eventual Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Eli Manning.

He had 30 interceptions against just 21 passing touchdowns in his first two years, but, of course, his legs made up for it, as he added 10 rushing touchdowns to Tennessee’s totals. And he was also 17-11 as a starter, leading Tennessee to the playoffs in 2007.

Vince Young’s physical skills are not in doubt, despite some accuracy issues. Vince Young’s psychology is what has kept him off the field.

The much-publicized disappearance earlier this year may have been the general public’s first introduction to his eccentricities, but Young told NFL.com in May 2008 that he “thought long and hard” about retiring from football after his rookie season, and missed an exhibition game in 2007 after choosing to go home the night before a game rather than stay in the team hotel.

This has all been compounded by the beating he takes from critics who expect the same world-beating force of nature from that Pasadena night. Merrill Hoge is Young’s most prominent foe; he called Young a “baby” in September of last year. The blogosphere took a shirtless picture and turned it into a mini-controversy. Jason Whitlock ripped Young as “totally unprepared” for the NFL, though he smartly and rightly asserts that it’s not about race. And even his own fans have showered boos on Young, and have cheered his absence from the area between the sidelines.

We think we know Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans as a talented, emotionally fragile quarterback destined for failure in the hard-as-nails NFL.

Why, then, would Young want to be that player, or even want to be back in Tennessee?

At Texas, where Young was, understandably, a demigod, he was supported, sustained, and never supplanted. Texas seems to have understood that Young’s a sensitive soul, and he performed very well under pressure for the Longhorns.

With the Titans earning the AFC’s top seed this year, there are now expectations of playoff success and Super Bowl aspirations in the air in Nashville; the bright future, of course, comes with more brutal scrutiny of every mistake.

It would shock me if Young, tossed into that toxic miasma, succeeds. He’s not the cool veteran that Kerry Collins is, or even the gutty backup Chris Simms is.

So it makes all the sense in the world for the Titans to sit him at quarterback behind both Collins and Simms.

What doesn’t make sense is not using Young’s considerable athletic talents elsewhere on the field. Ohio State showed in the Fiesta Bowl that splitting out your tall, fast players makes sense:

Why wouldn’t the offensively limited Titans do this, especially while struggling in the second half of their divisional playoff game against Baltimore? I don’t know. It seems like something that should have at least crossed coaches’ minds.

But if the Titans would rather go with Collins, and can’t find a way to utilize Young’s talents, it makes a lot of sense for him to be traded to a young team that could build around him.

The Titans could get draft picks to add speed to a team that could be a receiver away from the Super Bowl, or a low-rent defensive tackle to back up Albert Haynesworth. A Young-for-Julius Peppers scenario doesn’t fit Young perfectly, or bring Peppers to a 3-4 scheme, but it’s a fun little fantasy.

The Titans’ decision to try to bring Collins back as a starter for 2009 is as much a referendum on the quarterback in 2010 as any other smoke signal from Nashville. It seems to me that if Young were even being considered as a starter, there would be rumblings about some semblance of an open quarterback competition.

Why should the Titans keep a quarterback they don’t consider an asset good enough to help them to a Super Bowl? Why should Young want to give his all to a fan base that’s soured on him?

I’m not often an advocate for athletes getting what they want, but the petulance and pettiness of the Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson variety is usually disruptive for selfish reasons related to money.

Young’s own issues, selfish by any definition, seem more ephemeral, more related to his own success than his ability to buy a third Maybach.

As a sports fan who was once enchanted by that dervish in burnt orange who ruled college football, I want to see Vince Young succeed because his immense talents are a sight to be seen.

As an observer who would like a sensitive, complex athlete to recover from doubt and triumph over what, to me, looks a lot like depression, I’m cheering for Young because I think he can help broaden the culture of football and teach coaches that martinet is only one role a coach can play.

Jeff Fisher’s considered a smart coach, capable of knowing when and how to push players. If he feels he can do the same with Vince Young, with a more sensitive approach from the coaching staff producing a more disciplined and emotionally adjusted player capable of handling hardship and improving, Fisher should clearly keep him around.

If not, please send Young somewhere where that might be possible, a San Francisco or St. Louis or Kansas City where he can try to fly.

Caged birds sing. But wouldn’t we rather see them soar?

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1 Comment

Filed under Columns, NFL, Questions

One response to “Whither Vince Young?

  1. Now, let’s look at sense. Be careful sense does not mess with an open quarterback competition. It helps a fun little fantasy.

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