Young grows up and into a mature passer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vince Young(notes) smiles and tries to have you believe this was all part of some divine intervention. That his touchdown pass at the end of a remarkable game-winning 99-yard drive against the Arizona Cardinals two games ago was part of some other-worldly experience.

McNair and Young prior to a meeting in 2006.
(Marvin Gentry/US Presswire)

“Ain’t nothing but Mac 9, Steve McNair(notes), guiding that ball in there for me,” Young said of his clock-beating, fourth-down throw to rookie wide receiver Kenny Britt(notes). Young laughed warmly as he walked away at the end of an interview about his recent renaissance.

While the noble dedication to the memory of Young’s tragically dead friend, father figure and predecessor as Tennessee Titans quarterback may be a stretch, his rebirth during the past six games is remarkable nonetheless. Young, who sat for nearly a season and a half, hasn’t just played well in leading the Titans to a 5-1 record. He has played better than he ever had before.

“He is much more at ease with the position,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “He doesn’t feel like he has to put the team on his shoulders. Just go out and have fun with it, enjoy playing. The game has slowed down for him that way. Instead of trying to create things, running around and forcing a play, he’s waiting for things to happen, knowing where people are going to be.”

More than anything, Young has given the Titans hope that they have a real future at quarterback and not simply an extraordinarily gifted athlete who happens to throw it on occasion.

In Young’s first five games upon returning to the starting lineup, he posted a quarterback rating of at least 90 in four straight and at least 80 in all of them. Prior to that, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft never had more than two straight contests at 80 or better.

And in the NFL of today, 80 is a must. The NFL is in the midst of what some experts believe is the deepest era for quarterbacks ever.

“There are more talented guys in the NFL than I have ever seen,” said former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz, who is widely considered an expert on the position. “I’m serious, this is a great era for quarterbacks. Not just the older, established guys like [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady and [Drew] Brees, but all the young guys who have just come into the league.”

Young, forever hounded by the question of whether he’s a complete passer, may have finally earned his way into the in-crowd – which has unquestionably been an uphill climb.

Between his side-armed throwing motion and reputation for not knowing the X’s and O’s of the game, the feeling among many people in and around the NFL is that Young would never really make it in a league where you better be able to throw. The clearest evidence for that argument was the 2008 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. While throwing two interceptions and badly missing three deep passes, Young was booed by the home crowd and, at one point, refused to go back on the field. After Fisher sharply told Young to get back on the field, Young proceeded to get hurt and was replaced by Kerry Collins(notes).

Even after Young healed, he continued to sit as Collins led the Titans to a 13-3 record and the playoffs. For the first time in his career, Young had to deal with failure. In the process, he learned to differentiate between real and perceived criticism. To that point, Young simply fed on anything he thought was negative.

“It was always, ‘I’m going to go show them, I’m going to get them’ ” Tennessee quarterback coach Craig Johnson said. “It wasn’t a mature approach and eventually in this league, you have to have a mature approach and not bother with that stuff.”

Young, who left Thursday’s practice with an aggravated right knee injury but is expected to start against the Rams on Sunday, freely admits to being sucked in to the anger. These days, however, he has calmly deflected the old criticism and appears ready to handle it if it comes back.

“I used to get real pissed, they know,” Young said as he pointed to a member of the team’s media relations staff. “But, like I said, I’ve grown up. I’m more mature. I kind of listen to [the critics] now. It used to be I was like a kid, ‘Oh, they talking [expletive] about me, I’m going to go kick his ass.’ Now, I kind of like listen to what they’re saying and think, ‘OK, let me think about what they’re really saying.’ Are they really saying ‘F’ me or ‘He really sucks,’ or are they saying I need to get better at this to be a really good quarterback.

“That’s how I look at it now. If they say something, I may think, ‘Yeah, I can honestly see why you might say something like that on that play.’ OK, my feet [weren’t] right, I did make a bad throw. I used to look at it like they just completely hated me for some reason.”

Beyond that, Young’s home life was typical of many young athletes who come into immediate fortune. He had friends and family going on a cash grab, asking for money and time. While relegated to bench duty, Young’s first move was to tighten the ship in his personal life.

“I got a chance to clean up some stuff back home, business-wise, with money, people calling and asking for money,” he said. “That stuff was very irritating at the time. It was a lot going on and I didn’t feel like my team [of people helping me off the field] was structured right.

“I was the only guy in my family really doing something and that’s my family. I love my family. It was hard for me to tell them no at the time. That was a learning process for me.”

It clearly affected him at work, Johnson said.

“It was spilling over when he came into the building,” Johnson said. “He’d be mad about something that happened at home and he’d bring that here and it would get in the way of his preparation. … I told him again and again, you have to clear that stuff up before you can really be successful.”

Ultimately, Young did.

“Now, I have all that stuff focused and out of the way so I can focus on football more and don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Young said. “It still occurs, but I don’t pay too much attention to that anymore. I’ve got people to handle that.”

But the most painful part of this growth was dealing with the death of McNair, who was shot by his mistress as he slept in the wee hours of July 4. Young served as a pallbearer and has since kept in close contact with McNair’s youngest sons Trenton, 11, and Tyler, 5. In September, Young showed up at their house to take them to school-sponsored breakfast for dads.

In a professional sense, McNair’s death helped Young understand the full scope of what he has to do as a leader. Part of that was bringing Young and Fisher closer after their relationship had been strained by the 2008 benching. Like Young, Fisher was incredibly close to McNair and even gave a warm, emotional speech at McNair’s funeral.

“I just feel like he knows how much I loved Steve, and I know how much he cared about Steve,” Young said. “To see [McNair] gone, I know that hurt both of us. Fish and Pop [McNair], they were very close, and me and Pop have been close since I was in high school.

Young watches after releasing the game-winning pass to Britt.
(Charles Small/US Presswire)
“So we both realized what we had to do, not only to represent the organization but do what Steve wants. Ever since then, we’ve been on the same page, talking, making sure that everything is right as far as how he wants this team run, what he wants me to transfer back to the guys. I just feel like we have to be like that in order to keep winning. We have to make sure the quarterback and the coach are on the same page.”

To that end, Fisher, Johnson and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said Young has been much more careful about studying his playbook, paying attention to details and understanding that, when combined with running back Chris Johnson, the Titans offense can be dynamic.

That showed up throughout the 99-yard drive against Arizona. Young methodically worked the Titans down the field, taking advantage of the extra attention both he and Johnson get to hit one open throw after another. Even though Johnson never touched the ball on the drive, Young had little trouble getting the Titans into scoring range.

By the final play from the Arizona 10-yard line, Heimerdinger had run through all of the red zone plays the Titans had practiced that week. Instead of repeating one, he called a play the team hadn’t practiced since training camp. Out of a four-receiver set, the two inside receivers had to run option routes and the outside receivers ran to the back of the end zone.

Young’s job was to read the safeties and wait for one of them to bite. As he stared left at Arizona safety Antrel Rolle(notes), the pass rush started to close from the backside. Young stepped up and moved slightly to the left, but kept his eyes downfield. Finally, Rolle moved to cover wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins(notes), who was running one of the option routes.

Britt saw the same thing and threw up a hand. Young saw the red-and-white glove go up and pegged a throw to the middle as his body moved to the left. Awkward, yet completely on target.

The result of a lot of guidance.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Dec 11, 2009