Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Tennessee Titans

I have thus far spent the evening typing up what I hand-wrote of my latest story in my notebook, checking to see if there is any homework I can avoid doing, and reading fantasy baseball previews in great depth, even though I am not a fantasy person myself (not enough time). All of this has combined to make me start slavering for the start of the baseball season, but even though I generally leave my blogging tasks undone, not this time. (Applause). We continue with el Quizzos.

Tennessee Titans (10-6): Vince Young

The Titans made it to the postseason this year, even if their means of qualifying didn't really count. A Browns loss earlier in the day meant that Cleveland took the final spot if Tennessee lost; if the Titans won against the Colts, they were in. After playing Peyton Manning for precisely 16 pass attempts, the Colts appeared to say, "Screw it, we'll make Cleveland hate us," and put in their hapless backup Jim Sorgi -- when faced with such un-terrifying competition, the Titans won the game 16-10, sewing up the AFC's sixth seed and their first trip to the postseason since 2003. They finished third in the strong AFC South despite a 10-6 record, behind the 13-3 Colts and 11-5 Jaguars; the South was the counterpart to the NFC East in supplying three playoff participants. Facing the third-ranked Chargers in wild-card play, they took a 6-0 lead at halftime thanks to the strong right leg of All-Pro kicker Rob Bironas, but couldn't get into the end zone after that and had to watch Phyllis Rivers and his band of yahoos take a 17-6 victory. (In the Titans' defense, maybe they just didn't want to face the Patriots. Also, during that game, Young became the well, youngest Titan quarterback to start a playoff game at 24 years and 233 days -- his birthday is May 18, 1983). The Titans will have to keep stepping it up if they want to have any chance of ousting the favorite Colts and returning to the postseason, and while their running game is a sparkling 5th-ranked 92.4 average, they'll want to see if former Heisman runner-up Vince Young can improve on what have been rather lackluster personal numbers in his two completed seasons in the NFL.

Born in a tough neighborhood in Houston, Texas, Young was almost killed at the age of six when he was struck by a van while riding his bicycle; the accident left him hospitalized for a lengthy period of time and prompted a local TV station to make a spot about bicycle/vehicle safety featuring him. His mother and grandmother, who raised him, helped to steer him clear of the street gangs that ruled the turf (they and his sisters also supposedly helped develop his personal sense of fashion and style, and he wears #10 to mark his mother's June 10 birthday). Vince attended Madison High School, where he compiled over 12,000 yards of offense; a highlight came in beating the previously undefeated Galena Park North Shore Mustangs before 45,000 spectators in the Astrodome. He threw for 3,819 yards and 59 touchdowns that year (his senior season) and earned All-America and top-prospect distinction. A complete athlete, Young also competed in track and field (earning three letters) basketball (earning four letters and averaging over 25 points a game) and baseball (two years, pitching and playing outfield). But although he excelled in all sports, he chose to focus on football, and opted to attend the University of Texas in 2002 along with an exceptionally strong crop of Longhorns. (Broncos running back Selvin Young was among his teammates, as were New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross and Young's own current Tennessee teammate, cornerback Michael Griffin).

Young was an unstoppable force in the NCAA. After redshirting his freshman year, he took over as a sophomore and skippered the Longhorns to an 11-1 record, a Top 5 ranking, and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. He rushed for almost as many yards (1,189) as he passed (1,849) earning a reputation as a true dual-threat QB like Florida's Tim Tebow. But Young outdid himself the next year, going 13-o without a loss and cementing the Longhorns as the #2 pick behind perennial powerhouse USC, which at the time was sporting a shiny pair of Heisman winners -- quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush. (Young had finished second in 2005 behind Bush). However, Young won the Rose Bowl yet again, beating the Trojans 41-38 -- his own 9-yard scramble with 19 seconds remaining being the difference-maker. He finished that year with the #1 QB rating among all eligible quarterbacks, and there was simply no college program that could hope to contain him, or the burnt orange as long as he was in the backfield. Young posted a 30-2 mark as a starter, a Texas record, and understandably, the media was swooning for him -- he was repeatedly named as one of the best college football players ever, and at one point, had the Longhorns on a 20-game winning streak. His career .938 winning percentage is sixth in Division I history.

Young decided to enter the NFL draft in 2006 rather than playing out his final year of eligibility. Maybe he was so busy playing that he forgot to study, as there was a flap about his Wonderlic test scores -- the test, commonly administered to football prospects, is supposed to measure "cognitive ability" but is really just the SAT wearing pads. There was a pre-draft scandal in which it was reported that Young scored a six out of a possible fifty -- an impressive accomplishment, since a score of 10 supposedly indicates the player is literate. Everybody associated with it immediately denied, denied, denied (I think he probably did and they decided to get him a re-test pronto) and he was allowed to take it again, in which he scored a still-not-impressive 16. But nobody cared if he could do word problems if he could beat USC's blitzes, and Young was picked third overall by the Titans, the first quarterback taken in the draft ahead of Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler. (The former taken by the Cardinals and the latter by you-know-who). This came after a mad fluctuation of his draft stock, but the Titans were undoubtedly pleased, as they'd just snagged one of the top performers in NCAA history.

The transition to the big time, however, did not go quite as smoothly. After signing a five-year, $27 million pact, Young took the reins from Steve McNair, and although he established the rushing record for rookie quarterbacks with 552, he had his ups and downs. (McNair has served as Young's tutor and mentor, and Young sometimes jokingly refers to the 35-year-old as "Pops." They are close friends). In starting 13 games in 2006, he did at one point lead the Titans to three straight fourth-quarter comebacks, and had a six-game winning streak, but won-loss records for quarterbacks are a finicky statistic due to the number of other factors in a football game. However, his passer rating (66.7) rated 30th of 31 qualifiers, he threw for more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) despite partway redeeming himself with 7 rushing touchdowns. He had 2,199 yards and a very low 51.5 completion percentage, leading to questions being raised if he was the NFL version of the "AAAA player," meaning a player that is too good for every other level and yet not good enough for the pros. Other prospects have learned it's a big leap from the NCAA to the NFL, but despite this, Young wangled a Rookie of the Year selection, more likely due to voters' memories of his standout Texas career than his actual performance. Still, the Titans finished 8-8, four games ahead of their doleful 2005 showing, so there was definite improvement.

Young had another statistically suspect season this year as well. In starting 15 games, he recorded a 71.1 rating (26th out of 33 qualifiers, and below entrants such as Joey Harrington, Eli Manning, Brian Griese, Kyle Boller, and Damon Huard). His knack for being picked showed up in full force, as he was intercepted 17 times against only 9 TD passes, and he passed for 2,546 yards and a better (62.3%) completion percentage than his rookie year. His rushing attack was somewhat muted, as he picked up only 395 yards and 3 ground TDs, and he fumbled 10 times, losing 3. And although Titans camp opens in March, Young won't be there until May; he elected to go back to college this spring in order to complete his degree in liberal arts. He is quite literally a rock star in Texas (as a matter of fact, tomorrow, February 20, is official "Vince Young Day" in the state, so hollah) and I'm sure they'll be glad to see him on campus. While Young is doing homework, he'll also be studying the playbook and aspiring to prove the truth of the idea that you must have patience with elite prospects. While the Titans may have gained an unfortunate notoriety as being the team with either saintlike patience or deep stupidity to put up with Pacman Jones' continuing shenanigans, Young is hoping to change that impression and lead them to a repeat postseason appearance.

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