NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three days after what could be a career-defining win and what qualified as a reputation-restoring drive, Vince Young found himself surrounded by a bigger crowd than usual Wednesday after practice.
The Titans' quarterback still doesn’t understand some of the questions about how things have changed for him, but he’s gotten very good at talking about how he likes his fans and critics all the same, and I believe he means it.
It’s a lot easier, of course, for him to like the critics -- and it’s no secret I’ve been one -- when you’re doing so much to quiet them down.
This Vince Young has shown he can stand in the pocket and throw with touch just as easily as he can take off and run for a first down. He has shown a willingness to study. He has shown an ability to let go of the bad and move on. He has shown a confidence that had disappeared when he lost his job at the start of the 2008 season.
He has shown a lot, but he’s not finished yet and he knows it. A five-game sampling has been great, but the competition hasn’t been tremendous, the supporting cast has played very well and he knows people want more. Heck, he wants more too.
“I’m still working, still working, still working,” he said. “This is my fourth year. I’ve got a long way to go.”
Halfway through Young’s 10-game season, he’s certainly on track to make Jeff Fisher’s longstanding coachspeak about being the quarterback of the future turn true.
Let’s check in on where he stands in several areas that were issues for him while he was benched and forced to serve an apprenticeship while Kerry Collins started 22 games.
Study and Commitment
There is no outright admission that Young wasn’t as studious as he needed to be earlier in his career. But read what offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and Collins have to say about Young’s study habits now and connect the dots.
“I think his work habits have been great,” Heimerdinger said. “He’s been spending the time, he’s been studying it. If I put something in new on Wednesday and he struggles with it, he comes back Thursday and has it down cold. He’s really working at it, he’s doing the things that you are supposed to do.
“He’s got to be taking it home and studying it. If I’ve got a real wordy formation and play, he has it down cold the next day. The stuff I always wondered if he’d do, he’s doing.”
Said Collins: “I think he realizes more now what it takes to get ready to play during the week and to go out and do it on Sunday. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time he’s putting in whether it’s here or at home. That’s what it takes to be a great quarterback, and I think it’s showing in his reads, it’s showing on Sunday.”
Even if the Titans and Heimerdinger have worked to simplify things for him, Young has shown far more mastery of what he’s being asked to do than at any time in the past.
Maturity and Moodiness
Young has been known to mope. One of the concerns about him has been that he could be in a great mood one day and be down in the dumps the very next. That’s not the steadiness coaches like to count on in their starting quarterback, and it seems Young’s found a way to level things off.
“Last year he was [moody],” Heimerdinger said. “I’ve not seen him moody this year.”
“I think he’s taken this opportunity more seriously than other opportunities and that to me is a signal of growing up and maturity,” Collins said. “… I think he carries himself more maturely. I think he’s handling different situations more maturely. He’s just growing up.”
I don’t see him up close the way they do. But I have participated in several of Young’s media sessions in recent weeks, and he’s looser and more comfortable in those settings. A lot of readers will think that's insignificant, and a writer issue, not a quarterback issue.
But it’s part of the job that made Young defensive and uncomfortable in the past, and he’s handling it better now. That seems to run parallel to a lot of other issues. We used to talk body language a lot. No one’s asked about that since the quarterback switch.
Touch and Mechanics
The Titans accepted Young’s unconventional throwing motion when they drafted him. But when Heimerdinger took over in 2008, he said there were mechanical adjustments for Young’s feet that would have a bearing on his arm.
In four of the Titans' five wins, Young has not been an especially big catalyst -- Chris Johnson and the defense have played those roles.
But in Young’s supplemental role then and his takeover in the win over Arizona, he’s shown he can throw just about every pass in the quarterback repertoire effectively. He’s connected on darts down the middle and floaters down the sideline, from a setup in the pocket or on the move. The shorter stuff that’s given him problems in the past doesn’t seem to be an issue now.
His completion percentage this season (62.9) is up nearly six points from his career number coming into the season.
“His footwork is tremendous right now and his ball placement [in his dropback] is very good,” Heimerdinger said. “And when his ball placement is right and his feet are right, he can wing it. It’s just having his feet underneath him and not all spread out, his arm above his numbers instead of out [extends his arms like an airplane to illustrate] like he used to, which caused him to push it.”
This is the big lingering issue to me.
So far, Young’s bounced back from his bad moments. He threw a pick against the Bills. He lost a fumble in Houston.
Against Arizona, he kept the final play of the first half alive by bouncing off a pass-rusher, only to realize when he was tackled that he’d burned the final seconds during which the team could have kicked a field goal.
“He could have easily gone in the tank at halftime and did not,” Heimerdinger said. “He worked through it. At halftime, he was very attentive. He was right on top of everything we talked about and the adjustments we made.”
But what happened to Young the first time around, when he won offensive rookie of the year in 2006 and then followed up with shaky play in his second season?
He started well, winning and splashing in some magic moments. Later, when teams found ways to make things far more difficult, he didn’t handle it well, he didn’t find a way to push back. And in that infamous afternoon against Jacksonville at the start of his third season, it got to the point where he didn’t even want to try, asking out of the game.
Maybe it doesn’t come in the next five games, but somewhere he’s going to face worse things than blowing a field-goal opportunity or overcoming one turnover. He’ll have a dud, and he’ll get booed by the home crowd.
“He hasn’t had a rough spot yet,” said Herm Edwards, the former Jets and Chiefs coach who’s now an ESPN analyst. “He’s had a lot of success again after five weeks, which is great. It’s not that you wish it, but if I am a coach, I am wondering what happens if he throws two picks in a game. How is he going to react then? I want to see that.
“I need to see that part of it too. Because how he reacts to that, I think you are going to find out a little bit more about where he is emotionally too.”
Collins said he expects Young will show himself to be much more resilient.
“When you play this position, there are always bumps in the road, there is always a bump looming,” he said. “It’s a humbling position. All signs indicate he will be able to handle it and maybe better than he has in the past. And that’s part of the growing-up process as well.”
Jeff Fisher’s formula is well established. He likes a run-based offense with a pocket passer who’s largely a game manager who plays off a solid defense.
Young hasn’t really fit that, and it hasn’t really played to his strength. Some of that was his fault, some of it was the team’s.
So how are the Titans making that work as they ready for a trip to Indianapolis?
“He’s been able to handle the adjustments on the run,” Fisher said.
In Houston, Young made easy runs to the sticks, earning his team a fresh set of downs. Against Arizona, challenged to stand in the pocket and win a game, he did.
Heimerdinger said he doesn’t feel limited, that it’s his responsibility to maximize Young’s talents. And if those include a couple option plays a game, well…
“The option part’s been fun,” the coordinator said. “The fact that he can do that gives us a bonus.”
The question from the outside is about how Young’s mobility can cut the field in half.
“He’s got a lot more confidence playing in the pocket,” Edwards said. “In this league, you’ve got to have a quarterback that can play in the pocket. Because it’s built that way. The rules are set up that way, it’s all for the quarterback to play inside the pocket.
“I’m not saying they can’t get outside of it once in awhile. But generally what happens to you is you can only throw to one side of the football field. That’s why you don’t see a lot of guys that draw up offenses that have guys rolling outside the pocket. You have the whole field you need to play with.”
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. loves the accuracy and touch he’s seeing from Young. But he emphasized that Young’s good work has come behind a top offensive line and with a solid supporting cast, led by Johnson and a group of pass-catchers who are better than most give them credit for.
“I am not sold that Young will ever be an elite passer who can threaten the whole field, and I do think that the Titans have very wisely kept his reads very simple -- from option one to option two to tuck the ball down and run,” Williamson said.
Is this it, then? Do the Titans pay Young a roster bonus of $4.25 million and carry a cap number of over $14 million for him in 2010?
“We’ll find out in five more weeks,” Heimerdinger said. “He’s been consistent. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. But a great quarterback does it every week -- protects the ball, does the things you are supposed to do and stays within the system. He’s played very well in the five games we’ve had. I don’t have a lot of things to correct him on. But we’ve still got five more weeks.”
Edwards returns to the pocket passer idea when evaluating Young’s future.
“He’s not that guy, not now,” Edwards said. “But what he’s doing is allowing them to win football games. Now you’re hoping that as he continues to grow, he’s going to eventually be that guy. You want him to be that guy, but he’s not that guy yet. …
“I think with what he’s done you’ve got to stick with the guy now. That doesn’t mean you don’t draft a guy. If Collins is done, if this is his last year, they need another quarterback. Do you draft a guy? Maybe so. Maybe you draft the pocket passer you want so if it doesn’t work out you’ve got a guy in your system that you know you are grooming.”
Fisher says what he’s said all along.
It used to sound like pure spin. Five weeks into Vince Young v. 2.0, it's much easier to believe.
“He’s won a lot of games for us with different teammates,” Fisher said. “I think, yeah, it’s fair to assume [he’s the guy long-term]. We drafted him to be our franchise quarterback and never lost sight of that. Just because there was an interruption of his starts, we never thought he wasn’t going to be the guy we drafted him to be.”