- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Vince Young has run for 14 third-down conversions this season, third most in the league and first among quarterbacks. A 15th, with 1:12 remaining Sunday against Jacksonville, would have allowed Tennessee to run out the clock on a 24-17 win.
The Titans called a play designed to get their dynamic rookie on the edge of the Jags' defense, instructing Young to seek the first down while keeping in mind the three S's, so to speak: slide, stay (inbounds to keep the clock moving), sack (take one if necessary, but don't throw it and risk an incompletion). Titans coach Jeff Fisher had calculated that under the worst-case scenario, the Jags would begin their last possession deep in their territory with less than 30 seconds left.
What did Young do? He threw an incompletion.
Young had been Superman the previous three games, emerging from the phone booth in time to pull out dramatic victories over the Giants, Colts and Texans. But this time, he panicked under quick pressure from a blitz and, instinctively, tried to avoid a sack.
"It's part of the learning process," Fisher said afterward. In this case, the error was not costly, as Renaldo Hill's interception four plays later sealed the win, the Titans' seventh in Young's 11 starts.
He may have failed to sustain that drive, but Young has been a driving force behind one of the best stories of the NFL season's second half. Sparked by Young's infectious enthusiasm, contagious confidence and flair for the dramatic, the 7-7 Titans are among the league's hottest teams, winning five in a row and seven of nine. Tennessee has rallied around its young leader and still possesses a playoff pulse heading into Sunday's game at resurgent Buffalo.
But like all heroes, Young has flaws. The draft's third overall pick has shown that he could, indeed, turn out to be a transcendent player. But, as with all young quarterbacks, it's too early to anoint him. It's fun to watch VY work, but remember that his education continues.
Plays like the one against Jacksonville illustrate that Young isn't immune to youthful mistakes. What's encouraging to the Titans (and frightening for the rest of the league) is that with each game, each day, each practice and each pass, he makes strides toward becoming a complete quarterback. Part of the process is learning when to play the role of Clark Kent.
Although he spent most of Sunday observing his defense Tennessee's offense was on the field for only 15:38, going 0-for-8 on third down Young took a step forward even though he only threw for 85 yards on 8-for-15 passing. His most important number was 0, as in no turnovers. He threw a season-high three interceptions in the Titans' first game against the Jags, a 37-7 loss.
With Young, keep in mind that while physically he is a man, at 23 years old and 11 starts into his career, he's still a quarterback infant.
"He doesn't do a lot of things right," Titans quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said. "He's a work in progress. I'll tell you that and he'll tell you that. But he's been able to do stuff to help win the game. And if you're able to do that, all the other stuff doesn't matter as much."
Young has completed 63 percent of his passes in his past four games up from 46 percent in his first eight. That's evidence that he is getting the hang of all the other stuff. He understands that an incompletion or sack is better than a turnover. Young has thrown four interceptions in the six games since the loss to the Jags. Johnson says Young isn't throwing as many risky passes as he did earlier in the season, when he seemed to believe he could get away with taking the same chances he took at Texas.
Three months as the starter along with additional practice every Thursday with receivers coach Ray Sherman and Titans wideouts have increased Young's comfort level. Consequently, Young has become increasingly effective at looking off receivers and moving safeties with his eyes, as opposed to locking on to his targets the way young QBs usually do. That skill develops as a quarterback comes to know the system and trusts his teammates to be in position. On Young's game-tying touchdown pass against the Giants, his presnap read told him the safety would jump the tight end. He pumped frontside to freeze the defender and hit wide receiver Brandon Jones on a backside post route.
Touchdowns bring fans to their feet, but check downs really get coaches fired up. With the Titans trailing the Giants 21-0, Johnson, Sherman and offensive coordinator Norm Chow celebrated when Young scanned the field and dumped the ball off in the flat to fullback Ahmard Hall for a 9-yard gain that set up a second-and-1.
"That made no one's highlight film," Johnson said, "but I was so happy. It sounds easy, but when you're younger, you want to be aggressive and get the ball down the field, and it's harder to be patient. But he's learned how to do that."
Young's experience has even made him a more dangerous runner. Fisher speculates that early in the season, there was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work, with Young perhaps subconsciously buying into his critics' opinion that he would not be able to run as effectively in the NFL as he did in college.
Not only is he more confident in his ability to get out of the pocket and make defenders miss, he also is getting a good feel for when to extend the play as a passer and when to try to make a play himself. The charismatic Young always has had a presence. Now he has a good pocket presence to go with it. He runs when it's available as opposed to looking to run.
"Because he's done that," Johnson said, "he gets much more separation from the defense. It's allowed his running lanes to be that much more open."
Young had wide receiver Bobby Wade open but was able to beat an all-out blitz by the Texans on his game-ending touchdown run, which accounted for 39 of his 462 rushing yards this season, a record for a rookie quarterback. On the Titans' final drive against Baltimore in Week 10 a one-point loss to Steve McNair's Ravens that Fisher calls "the big step" in Young winning over his teammates Young picked up a crucial first down by scrambling for 17 yards against the Ravens' two-deep, man-to-man underneath defense to set up a field-goal try. Cover 2 Man, also known as Cover 5, isn't considered the most effective strategy against a mobile quarterback. Young recognized the defense and exploited it.
"He's comfortable with what we're asking him to do," Fisher said. "If somebody out there's saying our call sheet has a few chicken scratches on it, it [doesn't]. It's a sophisticated call sheet and he can handle it. There are some things on it that are unique to him, but we don't cut back or anything like that. We've actually added a few more concepts every week, and he's handled them well."
Fisher has seen his quarterback advance from dropping three steps on passes that called for five and needing practice to grasp a concept, to correcting teammates and executing a concept on game day that the Titans didn't practice. Young comes to the sideline with suggestions for adjustments rather than simply seeking guidance.
"That's where he excels," Chow said. "He'll see stuff and get on the phone and say, 'Coach, what about this, what about that?' He's very much into the game."
Said Fisher: "He's extremely focused. And calm. He trusts what we're telling him. And guess what? It has a calming effect on his teammates."
It's rare to see such a young quarterback lead as he learns. Tennessee, which started the season 0-5, has adopted Young's will to win. His poise in the huddle and fire in the open field and on the sideline have rubbed off on his teammates.
"He was cool like it was a regular day," Jones said of the quarterback's demeanor before the comeback against the Giants got going. "He was like, 'If you guys don't want to play, then you need to get out of the huddle.' He knew from the beginning when we were down by three touchdowns that we were not going to leave a goose egg on the scoreboard. Having a leader say something like that makes you want to play harder."
Besides carrying the Titans late in games, Young carries a chip on his shoulder.
"I just get tired of people talking about us," Young said after a win over the Colts on Dec. 3. "When you have teams saying we are the worst team in the league or you have commentators saying this or that about us, you just get tired of hearing that, especially when you know you are a good team."
The Titans' defense, perhaps inspired by Young's recent play, played the role of hero Sunday.
"We've just a lot more confidence as a team," Johnson said. "We don't know how good we are, but we feel like whatever team's out there, we'll play them. A lot of that is the spark he's given us."
"When you evaluate young people the one thing you can't measure is that will, that heart, that desire, those intangibles," Chow said. "And this young guy's got 'it.' "
One can only imagine what Young will do when he really figures out this quarterback thing. Until then, Young and the streaking Titans aren't exactly learning the hard way.
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Titans quarterback Vince Young, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, is learning, leading and winning on the fly, Michael Smith writes.
• Zoom gallery: Young