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Original Issue

Home Run

In his native Houston, in front of friends and family, Titans rookie Vince Young gotpayback on the team that didn't want him--and showed the NFL the shape of things to come

THE PARTY started in a crowded parking lot just north of Reliant Stadium around 10:30 on Sunday morning. As Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young prepared for his first NFL game in his hometown, about 60 of his friends and relatives gathered for the most eagerly awaited tailgate party in the short history of the Houston Texans. Never mind that they weren't there to cheer for the home team. They clustered under billowy canopies that shielded them from the light rain and ate barbecued chicken and grilled sausage while recalling memories of the player who has become one of the city's most beloved athletes.

Felicia Young, sitting proudly on the bumper of a tan Escalade, likened the scene to a joyful reunion as she pointed out former schoolmates and neighbors of her son. As she surveyed the crowd and waved at friends, she couldn't hide her excitement. "Once we get into that stadium," she said, "we're going to see an anointing."

At the time it sounded like nothing more than the boasting of a proud mother, but by the end of Tennessee's 26--20 overtime victory over the Texans, Felicia proved to be prophetic. Her son didn't merely justify his status as a favorite son--he showed that he is one of the game's brightest young stars. His occasionally breathtaking performance on Sunday demonstrated why he was the third pick and the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft last April ... and was also a painful reminder to fans of the hometown Texans that he could have been playing for them this season (box, page 50).

The day's signature play was Young's 39-yard touchdown dash through the middle of Houston's defense on the first possession of overtime, a third-and-14 scramble that brought the game to a stunning end. But that was just the last of Young's heroics. Late in the fourth quarter he engineered a 15-play, 88-yard drive that gave Tennessee a 20--17 lead, connecting on four of five passes and scrambling for a first down on third-and-four from the Texans' eight. In a game that was at times ugly to watch--that's what can happen when teams that were a combined 9--15 face off--Young rushed for 86 yards and passed for 218 more while completing 19 of 29 passes with one interception.

In what is becoming a weekly occurrence, Young looked nothing like the first-year player who many thought would need two or three years to develop into an effective NFL quarterback. "I know there are people who still say I'm just a run threat who can't pass," Young says. "But I know I can sit back in the pocket and go through my progressions, and I also know I can make things happen when plays break down. I can do whatever it takes to win."

With Young under center, Tennessee, a team that in its two previous seasons was a combined 9--23 and dropped its first five games this year, has won six of its last eight. During the Titans' current four-game winning streak, Young has completed 59.5% of his passes and rushed for 282 yards. "He's a phenomenal athlete," says Texans rookie middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "Not only can he throw the ball, but he can cause so many problems with his feet. And he's making a lot of good decisions."

Young has also provided something that a Tennessee team light on talent sorely needed: some swagger. "When you have a dominant guy like Vince, his confidence becomes contagious," says rookie fullback Ahmard Hall. "Before you know it, everybody starts believing in what we can do as a team." Adds Young, "We are coming together. When we were losing earlier in the season, guys were pointing fingers. Now you see guys believing in each other. Now you see everybody in that locker room fighting together."

Hall has seen this kind of team transformation before, having played three seasons with Young at Texas. Before the highly touted quarterback arrived in Austin, Longhorns coach Mack Brown was known for his old-school approach, including his unwillingness to allow music in the locker room. By Young's junior season, he had persuaded Brown to install a stereo system in the locker room, and he even had his coach listening to 50 Cent.

At Texas, Young made a point of chatting with backup offensive linemen to keep them focused on their responsibilities in case a starter went down. He would remind them that they were as vital to the team as the players ahead of them on the depth chart. That's one of Young's more underrated talents: a gift for realizing what it takes to keep a team unified. It helped him go 30--2 as a starter in college and lead the Longhorns to last year's national championship, capped by an upset win over Southern Cal during which Young passed for 267 yards and ran for 200 more. But even that performance--a game in which he rallied the Longhorns from a 12-point deficit with touchdown drives of 69 and 56 yards in the final 6:42--didn't allay doubts about his ability to be successful in the NFL.

The naysayers pointed out that Young had no exposure to a pro-style offense in college. Texas featured him almost exclusively in a shotgun, read-option system that relied heavily on his improvisational skills. Titans coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Norm Chow didn't see that as a problem, because they weren't going to force Young into their system. Instead, Chow modified the offense to fit Young's talents.

To make Young more comfortable, the Titans tweaked their offense, installing the read-option and employing more shotgun formations. It also helps that Young, despite his unconventional three-quarter sidearm throwing motion, is a more accomplished passer than his skeptics realized. He also has an instinctive feel for the pass rush and a strong grasp of how opponents defend him. "In training camp, we wanted to expose him to our offense and add a little more each week," Fisher says. "But Vince picked things up so fast that we never felt we had to back off. There were no limitations."

Not that there haven't been some rough spots. Though Young progressed quickly enough to unseat Kerry Collins as the starter in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, he didn't feel that he had established himself as the team's leader. After a 14--13 loss at Indianapolis the following week, Young left the RCA Dome feeling despondent. On the bus and during a conversation the next day, he told Hall that he sensed his teammates weren't ready to believe in him. His insecurity showed in his play, as he often pressed and overreacted to errors committed by him or his teammates. Like many high draft picks who come from successful colleges and are unaccustomed to losing, Young was particularly hard on himself. "People told me I'd have to deal more with losing at this level," he says. "I understood that, but I didn't want to start accepting losses."

Young settled down, thanks in part to the veteran Collins, who told him to keep an even keel if things weren't going well. Against the Washington Redskins the following week, on the Titans' opening possession Young overthrew tight end Bo Scaife on what should've been an easy 18-yard touchdown pass, but he didn't let the miscue frustrate him. He completed 13 of 25 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in a 25--22 victory. "Earlier, he would've been really upset about that pass," Collins says. "But when he reached the sideline, he acted like it was no big deal."

Young has been so impressive over the last month--engineering wins over three playoff contenders (Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Indianapolis) and staging three straight fourth-quarter comebacks--that it's hard to find anything to knock him on. His only major mistake during this run came when he missed the team flight to Philadelphia on Nov. 18; Young said he left his ID at home and, after retrieving it, got stuck behind a funeral procession. His pride surely took a hit after Fisher told the pilot to leave without Young, but he hasn't lost a game since.

In fact, Fisher already is thinking about the next step for his rookie quarterback, saying he wants to see more consistency. Chow adds that Young has to start taking over games earlier and doing a better job of adjusting when a defense flashes a new look. Young showed signs of that on Sunday, when he recognized the Texans' blitz on the final play after Houston had spent most of the game dropping eight defenders into coverage.

As he left Reliant Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Young got the full-scale rock-star treatment from the 200 people waiting for him near the players' exit. An exuberant Young exchanged hugs, signed autographs and posed for photos for at least 30 minutes. As Felicia Young had predicted, it was a special day--and the sense around the Titans is that the kid is just getting started.

"Vince would never say it, but it bothered him that people thought it would take him three or four years to become a player in this league," says Tennessee Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Bulluck. "So I know he's taking a lot of pride in proving those people wrong."


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20/20 Foresight

O.K., so Vince Young is pretty good. The Texans still think they got the best of the 2006 draft

THE HOUSTON TEXANS could have handled losing on Sunday on a 60-yard field goal. Hell, they probably would've accepted a 70-yarder. But the last thing they wanted was to see Titans rookie Vince Young race through their defense, in their house, for a 39-yard, game-winning touchdown in overtime. Young's stunner generated more fodder for all the frustrated fans and skeptical media types who wonder why the Texans didn't take the hometown kid with the first pick in the 2006 draft.

But even in the midst of a 4--9 season (and despite Young's coup de gr√¢ce), the Texans insist they're happy with their 2006 draft, arguably the most productive of any team's this year. Though defensive end Mario Williams, the first overall pick, had little impact on Sunday, he has 4 1/2 sacks despite playing for the last six weeks with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Fourth-round tight end Owen Daniels has emerged as a reliable target (33 receptions, five touchdowns), and sixth-round running back Wali Lundy has gained 462 yards in a backfield-by-committee. Then there's the star of the group, second-round linebacker DeMeco Ryans. During training camp Ryans made a smooth transition from the weak side, his college position at Alabama, to the middle and won the starter's job. Intelligent, instinctive and athletic, he's leading the NFL in tackles (127) despite being undersized at 6'2" and 236 pounds. Houston's defense still has a long way to go--it's ranked 28th in the NFL this year--but after a rough opening stretch, the Texans have allowed a respectable 309.4 yards and 19.8 points.

So while Houstonians from the 7-Elevens to the Space Center carp that the Texans blundered by passing on Young (Houston had already signed their young quarterback, David Carr, to a long-term extension in February) and Reggie Bush, first-year coach Gary Kubiak betrays no doubts. "We had to improve our total roster, because competition and depth are what make you better in the long run," he says. "We just need to keep having the kind of production we've gotten out of this draft--and free agency--and we'll improve."

"When you have a DOMINANT GUY like Vince," says Hall, "his confidence becomes contagious. Everybody starts believing."