It was only a matter of weeks before Vince Young made magic when he came to the NFL in 2006.
Those moments were real, though. The 24-point rally against the New York Giants, the 39-yard overtime touchdown run at Houston and all the other things that led to his being named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year were real. They had to do with the brashness of youth, the undeniable value of athleticism and a sense of “in-Vince-ibility” forged through years of reinforcement as a high school and college legend in the football-mad state of Texas.
But the true illusion he mastered was that he was a quarterback — not as a passer, but as a team leader. At heart, Young is an insecure diva with no realistic sense of his place on a team or in the National Football League. His personality is more wide receiver than helmsman.
With this finally exposed, Young has vanished from the Tennessee Titans roster for the final six weeks of the season, the victim of a significant thumb injury and his own profound lack of perspective.
Whether he ever reappears in a Titans uniform, pops up somewhere else in the league or manages to make coach Jeff Fisher disappear will be one of the most-watched and oft-discussed sporting topics of the coming months, as it has been for the past week.
“Can you get rid of a head coach and [expect] this team to follow Vince Young? I don’t believe that’s the case,” NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk said Sunday during a pregame telecast. “I haven’t seen that from Vince Young just yet, but I do know that Jeff Fisher is a winner, and his coaching staff and the structure of your organization must stay the same.
“Keep Fisher. Vince Young has to go.”
Countered Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin: “Imagine if he had a system that accentuated his talent and not a head coach that doesn’t believe in him. He may be better than this.”
Young never wrote a book called Just Give Me The Damn Ball, as Keyshawn Johnson did. He never preened for the cameras as he performed sit-ups in his driveway a la Terrell Owens. He never openly challenged the NFL’s policy on celebrations or changed his name as Chad Ochocinco has.
Of course, the thing that Young had up his sleeve over much of the last four-plus seasons was that as a quarterback, he had the ball in his hands every play. He was guaranteed to be the center of attention for the Titans’ offense. He just had to rely on himself to shine.
It’s only when the ball is taken away that Young’s need for attention surfaces. That’s what happened in the 2007 season-opening defeat against Jacksonville, and again a little more than a week ago against Washington. He openly pouts on the sideline, challenges his head coach and pulls back the curtain on his distorted sense of reality.
History of low drama
The funny thing is that the Titans made a concerted effort, beginning in 1998 when they elected not to draft Randy Moss, to avoid that type of player.
Other than one forgettable season with Carl Pickens, Tennessee consistently has relied on receivers such as Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett, Justin Gage and Nate Washington. All four either were drafted in later rounds or not at all, worked their way into a starting role and were refreshingly devoid of any sense of entitlement.
Now, the recent addition of Moss has helped illuminate just how far Young has to go before he truly is an accomplished NFL quarterback. With the future Hall of Famer lined up to the left on the majority of snaps against Washington, Young threw the ball his way only once in his final start — and that was one of the rare times when Moss started on the right.
When rookie Rusty Smith replaced the injured Young against Washington, his first two throws went to Moss, once to the right and once to the left. Four of Smith’s nine attempts in his first NFL action went that way.
“That’s just what the coverage dictated, so it’s not like I was forcing the ball to him in coverages that weren’t supposed to go to him,” Smith said. “The coverage that they gave dictated that I throw the ball to Randy, and that’s where I threw the ball.”
It should be noted that Moss, Johnson, Owens and Ochocino all currently rank among the top 35 in NFL history in pass receptions. They are or were productive players with the ability to seriously affect a game, yet Johnson played for four teams during his 11-year career (none for more than four seasons), and Owens is on his third team in as many seasons and the fifth of his career.
Only one among them has been a Super Bowl champion. That was Johnson in 2002 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following season, he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, and his time with Tampa was finished.
Young has won nearly 64 percent of his 47 career starts with the Titans. He helped rally the team from 0-5 to 8-8 in 2006, and from 0-6 to 8-8 (an NFL first) last season. In his only playoff appearance, though, Young had a passer rating of 53.5 in the second-lowest scoring playoff performance in franchise history, a 17-6 loss to San Diego in 2007.
The Titans have hoped since 2006 that sooner or later, Young would catch on to the fact that he needs to improve his technique, his attitude about practice and his general approach to being a professional. Instead, he consistently has acted more like someone who has caught 689 passes than someone who has completed that many.
As he said during a 60 Minutes interview at the start of his second season, “Can’t nobody tell me nothing.”
At this point, nobody can even tell where Young will be next season.