After all the drama and turmoil surrounding last season, including Vince Young refusing to take the field after an interception and going missing for several hours, Young was never further from his post-draft declaration of becoming a Hall of Fame quarterback. Then, to make things worst, he lost his job to Kerry Collins and was unable to regain it until a disastrous start by his team. To many, it looked like Young was a bust, another running quarterback from a spread offense who couldn't cut it in the NFL. His attitude, work ethic, and passing abilities came under fire from all corners. With a huge cap hold in 2010, it began to look like his career in Tennessee was coming to an end, almost before it even began.
Since regaining that starting job, it's been an amazing run for the formerly beleaguered quarterback, who needed the support of his owner to get another chance as a starter, even after the horrific performances by Collins to start the season and the accompanying six-game losing streak. Despite failing to put up monster numbers, Young was just winning, nothing more, nothing less. Four games. Four victories.
In the first half of the game against Arizona on Sunday night, Young made a major mistake in a close game by holding onto the football and letting the first-half clock expire without being able to kick a crucial field goal. Down by four points late in the fourth quarter, Young hit his new favorite target Kenny Britt deep down the field for a big goal, the long pass hitting the receiver nearly perfectly in stride, though the rookie from Rutgers fell to the ground making the catch. Untouched, he regained his footing, but failed to spot Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie closing from behind, losing the football when the Arizona defender knocked it from his grasp.
It was a crucial mistake, but it didn't doom the Titans, as the defense held, but for a second straight possession, LaRod Stephens-Howling downed the ball near the Tennessee goalline, forcing Young to lead the Titans 99 yards with a little more than two and a half minutes remaining in the game, needing a touchdown -- a daunting task even for Peyton Manning. For Young, having already led eight four-quarter or overtime comebacks in his brief career as a starter, it would be a defining moment in his comeback, defining whether his first four starts were merely a result of managing the game and letting Chris Johnson run wild against opposing defenses or whether Young had finally turned the corner in his professional development.
Throughout most of his NFL career, Young has appeared a different player than he did in college -- unable to achieve his easy dominance, to use his feet to turn broken plays into gains that broke the back of his defense. Even his uniform looked different. Gone was the close-fitting uniform he wore at Texas, replaced with the NFL quarterback-style loose-sleeved uniform that seemed as strange on him as any attempt to recast him as a pure pocket passer.
Still far removed from his dominance in college, Young would have to face this major challenge of driving the length of the field without the help of the leading rusher in the NFL, Chris Johnson. Like he was so often in college, Young was up to the challenge, converting two fourth downs, standing in the pocket, scanning the field and delivering passes with pinpoint accuracy. As famiiar as it was, this was a different profressional Vince, equally as confident standing in the pocket as scrambling.
Yet, the magic, the confidence was the same, so familiar to Texas fans who watched him lead the team with unwavering belief, indomitable spirit. For Texas fans, it was a beautiful, long-lost familiarity, the kind that many no doubt missed since Young stood in confetti at the Rose Bowl, his last time wearing burnt orange on a football field.
Yet, it was not enough just to convert those two fourth downs and give Tennessee a chance to win the game, having driven 90 of the 99 yards down to the Arizona 10 yardline. No, to regain that missing magic, Vince would have to win the game, pure and simple. The magic was lingering, waiting to be released. Young nearly did win the game on third and goal, hitting Nate Washington in stride across the middle near the goalline, but the former Steeler dropped the ball. It could have been a crushing drop, the type of play that fans remember for years.
Fourth down. The moment of truth. Vince stood in the pocket, looking, then tucked the ball and started forward towards the line fo scrimmage and the end zone. Too far though to run, even for the man who once converted 3rd and 33 and 4th and 19 by tucking the ball and running in college -- 10 yards from paydirt with the clock ticking towards zero in the NFL is like 50 yards in college. Then, firing across his body, Young sent the ball towards the back of the end zone to a leaping Britt, who took a hit and came down with the football as the clock expired, giving the Titans the victory and preserving their playoff hopes, preserving Young's perfect record as a starter this season. That familar Vince magic was back, back in full force.
Much like he did in the Rose Bowl, Young was not mobbed by his teammates, who headed to congratulate Britt, but celebrated away from them, heading towards the stands to enjoy the moment with the fans. Cartharsis for Young, who had faced so many questions, so many doubters in the last year -- doubters questioning his ability to play at the NFL level, to succeed there, to dominate games in the same way he did in college.
Yes, the result was similar, but the method different, as Young proved that he could pick defenses apart, hitting for a career-high 387 yards passing and winning the game, even though Arizona held him to only eight yards rushing. Oh yeah, and he did it against Matt Leinart again, the arrogant fool who stood defeated on the Rose Bowl saying that sometimes the best teams don't win. Matt, when you are facing off against Vince on the opposite sideline, there's little chance you could be playing on the better team. Touch luck.
But this isn't about Leinart, it's about a resurgent Vince Young. Five games. Five victories. The same old Vince, with a new twist. Still with that familar, unbelievable magic.