SEVERAL DAYS before the Titans' playoff opener against the Chargers last January, quarterback Vince Young sat in front of his dressing stall and calmly spoke about San Diego's marvelous offensive talent, most notably running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Chris Chambers. When asked what he could do with those players in his huddle, Young shook his head.
"I can't even elaborate on something like that," he said. "I hope guys like you can put that out for me. All I get is criticism, criticism, criticism. I can't even watch SportsCenter. I can't even watch NFL Network to check on all the people I'm cool with around the league. I can't go there without hearing some crap all the time: Vince Young did this wrong, Vince Young did that wrong."
If that was Young's frame of mind as he was leading his team into the playoffs, it's easy to understand his erratic, if not bizarre behavior after being booed at home two Sundays ago in a season-opening win over Jacksonville.
People I respect have tried to play Monday morning psychiatrist in explaining Young's actions. They've pointed out that he grew up without a father figure in his household and that, like other African-American quarterbacks in the NFL, he comes under greater scrutiny than his white counterparts. I think the explanation is much simpler: Young needs to grow up.
In the fourth quarter of an important AFC South game against the Jaguars, Young was booed after he threw his second interception in Tennessee territory. On Sunday, in the Bengals' 24--7 loss to the Titans, Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer got the same treatment from his home fans after two fourth-quarter picks. But Palmer did not slam his helmet on the sideline and drop his face into his hands, as Young did against Jacksonville. Nor did he appear uninterested in returning to the field, as Young had.
Sources inside the Titans organization say coach Jeff Fisher, who went over to Young on the sideline, had to talk his QB back onto the field, though Fisher denies it. Young did return for the next series (he came out shortly thereafter with an injury), but the lingering perception is that he was about to quit on his team because he didn't like the treatment he was getting from fans.
"When you've had the success Vince has had—in high school, in college and the last two years here—and you've been told you're the Man the whole time, [then] somebody tells you you're not, or the crowd voices its displeasure, that's pretty hard to take," says veteran center Kevin Mawae, who does not accuse Young of quitting. "You have to learn that they're not booing you personally. They're booing your performance."
Young rose to fame at Texas, where he went 30--2 as the starter and led the team to the 2005 national title, scoring the decisive touchdown against undefeated USC in the final seconds. He remains a demigod in Austin, which might explain why he returned there this summer to work toward his degree in youth and community studies instead of remaining in Nashville for intensive full-time work with new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. Fisher says he had no problem with Young's being in Austin; other members of the organization, however, privately shook their heads at reports that Young spent as much time there partying as studying.
That does not stem from race or family structure. It shows immaturity, which can be attributed in part to the coddling Young received from everyone around him. Criticism and adversity were foreign to him before he was picked third in the 2006 NFL draft. When media and fans questioned Young's effectiveness as a passer—his TD passes dropped from 12 in his rookie year to nine in '07 while his interceptions increased from 13 to 17—he seemed to become preoccupied with showing he could pass out of the pocket, at the expense of using his running skills to put pressure on defenses.
"Closing your ears is a big part of being in this industry, because half the people who are commenting have never been in your situation," says Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck. "That's just their job to comment on things. You can't be reading the paper or listening to the media. Sports are made to be reported on, and that's what they're doing."
Young has yet to accept that. His mother, Felicia, told The Tennessean last week that Vince is being "ridiculed and persecuted and talked about and not being treated very well." One assistant coach said privately that Young has bought into this and that it's becoming increasingly difficult to get through to him.
In the off-season Young told NFL.com that he thought "long and hard" about retiring after his rookie year because of stress in his personal and professional life. On the Monday following the Jaguars game he abruptly left his home after reportedly mentioning suicide to his Nashville marketing representative. Fisher learned of this through Sheila Peters, a psychologist employed by the team, and contacted city police. Eventually, Fisher located Young through the quarterback's agent, Major Adams, and met with Young at the Titans' facility. Police say an unloaded gun was found in Young's Mercedes.
Teammates echoed the company line that the situation was blown out of proportion, and they were willing to give Young the benefit of the doubt. Yet some said there would be major issues if it was true that Young did not want to reenter the game. "I don't feel that he did that," says Bulluck, "but if that were the case, he definitely would have to do something to regain the trust of his teammates."
The quarterback went for an MRI on his knee on Sept. 9 and was ruled out for two to four weeks with a sprained MCL. Fisher has offered no assurances that Young will get the starting job back right away. The coach likes the idea of having Young sit and watch how 14-year veteran Kerry Collins, who on Sunday was 14 of 21 for 128 yards and a touchdown with no picks, goes about preparing during the week and applies that work to the game. Fisher's preference was to have Young spend his rookie year on the sideline, but after Tennessee lost its first three, he put Young in the starting lineup in Week 4.
In a few weeks Fisher could have another major decision to make. The AFC South appears wide open because of injuries in Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The Titans, in first place at 2--0, could be in position to take control of the division. Will Fisher risk disrupting the team's rhythm by starting Young even if Collins is playing well and the team is winning? The coach isn't saying. He wants to see how Young handles being out of the lineup—to see if his study habits improve and if he hungers to play. As Fisher said of Young on Sunday, "He should be kicking the door down."
The coach and the players have to know that they can depend on Young, whether he's being cheered or booed. "If you're the quarterback, you've got to have thick skin," Mawae says. "He's got to learn that. If you've never been booed before, how do you know how to react to that? You can say, 'Screw you. I'm going to go out there and take care of business.' Hopefully that's what he will do the next time."
THOMAS E. WITTE
STEADY Collins was mistake-free against Cincy.
VINSECURITY Young went out late in the Week 1 win—and isn't guaranteed of reclaiming his starting job once he's back.