Kerry Collins vs Vince Young: Jeff Fisher's False Choice

This may not be the week to bring it up, as I'm pretty sure the TItans' offense is screwed against the Steelers today No Matter What, but as the Titans have begun to slide back to the pack (2-2 in their last 4, following a 10-0 start), it's time for Tennessee to start looking forward to the playoffs, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and identifying areas in which they can immediately improve.

If Goal #1 is making sure Albert Haynesworth is healthy for the playoffs, this post contends that Goal #2 should be that the Tittans' coaching staff (A) properly identifies the offense's weaknesses, (B) addresses where it can and cannot be improved, and (C) systematically begins (starting now) implementing a plan to improve it. 

THE PROBLEM

Following the Titans' ugly loss to Houston last Sunday, SB Nation's Tennessee blogger -- who has a passive (at best) understanding of Vince Young's strengths as a football player -- tentatively raised the question of whether Vince Young should play this week against Pittsburgh, writing:

This is going to be the first pro-Vince Young piece I have written since the meltdown he suffered during and after the season opener.  Let me preface this by saying I am not sure what the answer is.  That is why there is a question mark in the title.  We have to be careful not to overract to yesterday's loss because this team is 12-2 with Kerry Collins as the starter...

The Titans don't ask much of their quarterback, but they do need for him to be able to complete some passes when the other team is in man.  I understand that this group of receivers is sub-par, especially considering the worst receiver in the NFL, Justin McCareins is a part of the group, but they were open a lot yesterday.  Collins just couldn't get the ball to them.

Though that Music City Miracles post is titled "A Case For Vince Young?", it more accurately would be headlined "I'm Not So Sure We Can Win The AFC With Kerry Collins," lamenting that  during the team's 2-2 slide, Collins is "61 of 113 (54%) for 706 yards with 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles."

Those numbers hardly impress, but what Jimmy doesn't mention is that Collins' average yards per attempt during that same stretch (6.24) is up from the previous 9 games in which he started (5.7). Nor does he mention that Collins' completion percentage during the previous 9 games (all wins) was only 59%. The touchdowns per attempt during the good times (1 every 34 attempts) is barely better than the touchdowns per attempt during the last four games (1 per 38 attempts). The only real difference in Collins "Before & After" is that his turnovers are up (3 fumbles, 0 lost + 4 interceptions in 269 attempts during the win streak versus 2 fumbles, 1 lost + 3 interceptions in 113 attempts in the 2-2 streak). 

In short, though the recent uptick in turnovers has brought to MCM's attention Collins' limitations, in reality he's been more or less the same player throughout: Solid, steady, neither strong nor bad. To focus on Collins as the reason the Titans won their first 10 games is to assign a cause to the wrong effect. Tennessee did not start 10-0 because of Kerry Collins; he merely was an admirable quarterback in performing well enough that the team's other strengths were able to shine. 

Now, however, as the playoffs near and other teams are adjusting to Tennessee's strengths -- particularly on offense -- Collins' limitations are being exposed. And that is the problem.

WHEN CONSERVATISM ATTACKS

Where Jimmy's commentary is on target insofar as it properly diagnoses a potentially fatal problem for Tennessee (Collins' limitations against defenses which are adjusting to what the Titans like to do), it's maddeningly myopic in its wholesale failure to comprehend, elucidate, and integrate that which Vince Young adds to an affirmative solution -- other than Not Kerry Collins.

I mention all this not to call to task MCM but because I think that precisely the same problem which plagues this particular Titans fan is that which hamstrings Tennessee head football coach Jeff Fisher. In particular, I'm concerned by what I perceive to be a fundamental misunderstanding as to why Vince Young needs to be on the playing field for the Titans. 

Where MCM and Fisher seem to be understanding week by week The Basic Problem, they simultaneously seem incapable of divorcing themselves from those virtues of Kerry Collins that steadied the team in arriving at this point. And the consequence of those blinders they wear is an inability to evaluate holistically that which would best serve the team heading forwards. 

Sound familiar, Longhorns fans? Though the point of this post is not to suggest that Vince Young is capable of running roughshod on the NFL like he did his collegiate competitors, I lay all this out because Jeff Fisher (and the fans who think like him) seem to me to be limiting themselves/their team in precisely the way that Mack Brown did before he changed the way that he looked at the "problem" on his hands. Consider the similarities:

  • Before Mack Brown "let Vince be Vince," as we now call it, the problem of the Texas offense wasn't at all that the conservative approach to that point had brought poor results for the program, but rather that elevating to the next level required an adjustment -- both in mindset and execution. In tandem, the two unmistakably represented a fundamental shift both in appreciation and implementation of a more diverse offensive attack featuring those things that Vince Young could add with his particular talents.
  • For the Titans, the conservative approach of Jeff Fisher has brought him during his tenure a long period of solid success. And in this year in particular, the solid, conservative approach with Collins has been compatible with allowing to shine the team's considerable strengths elsewhere. The question now is how to elevate to the next level.

So when I see Titans fans set up this false dichotomy of "Collins, the guy who got us to 10-0" versus "Vince Young, the guy who didn't," I shake my head. And not because I think Vince Young capable of dominating the National Football League. Not at all... My head shakes because that thinking nmisassigns a cause (Collins being adequate) to an effect (the Titans' strength in 2008).

WHERE VY FITS IN

In light of the above, I have two conclusory points:

First, Jeff Fisher, MCM, and other Titans fans in the same boat have to dig a lot deeper in analyzing Collins' role in this team to have the right foundational framework to make decisions going forward. I'm all for giving Kerry Collins an enormous amount of credit for stepping in and masterfully providing the kind of steady adequacy this team needed to get off to the start that it did. But that cannot be confused for something more than it is/has been. Collins is today who he has been all year: A steady, good-not-great game manager who can adequately help other elements of a very strong team shine.

Second, and more importantly, understanding the preceding point demands -- in my view -- not just an understanding of what Has Been but what the Best Titans Offensive Team might look like heading forward. In my view, that means an aggressive approach to offensive improvement that includes getting Vince Young involved with this football team. Though there exists room for healthy debate as to whether that be in a limited role (on specially designed sets) or a more robust one (in which he provides Collins-level adequacy but infinitely more upside), any plan for this team's playoff push that does NOT include one component or the other is in my mind a failure.

From there, let the debates begin. Reasonable arguments can me made that Vince Young should be integrated aggressively into everything (or substantial parts of what) the Titans do on offense. (As one of the few who liked the Titans' draft for that reason, this would be my approach.) Or, reasonable minds can make the case that a more limited, strategic role for VInce -- in which he compliments Collins and the existing offense -- would be better. 

In either case, the Titans would be rejecting a too-conservative, wait-until-too-late approach to improvement on offense in favor of an affirmative choice to make the most of everything they have at their disposal. Failure to do so is to misunderstand Collins' actual value, assign in him effects for which he is not the cause, and stubbornly refuse to seek and maximally utilize all of one's offensive weaponry.

Play VY... starting now. Come playoff time, it will make all the difference in the world -- with Vince either a difference-maker in his ability to make plays or his ability simply to create for defenses one more thing to worry about in addition to that which the Titans already present. 

That's the key. And where next you run across an NFL fan who makes this about Collins vs Young, try-try-try to make them understand why that's the wrong question and a false choice. And why the better analysis focuses on pinning down what Young can and should add to this offense.

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