Recently, some coaches went to a school to learn how to better defend a particular offense. Not exactly breaking news, as that happens all the time in the football offseason. However, the difference is that these coaches come from the NFL, the Green Bay Packers to be exact, and what they’re trying to learn from Texas A&M is how to defend the read option, a concept that has become prevalent in college football throughout the country. The Packers are still sore after the 49ers posted an astonishing 579 yards of total offense on them in the playoffs, with Colin Kaepernick rushing for 181 yards, a playoff record for a quarterback. Green Bay doesn’t want that to happen again, obviously, and there will undoubtedly be more NFL teams devoting more time and resources to dissecting what the 49ers decided to do, who barely lost the Super Bowl with a quarterback that didn’t even start the season for them.
I admittedly did not watch too much NFL this season, but when I did see what the 49ers were doing with Kaepernick, I would often think, "This is how Vince Young should have been used," and it frustrated me that quarterbacks like Christian Ponder were starting while Vince Young was not on a roster. As we all know here, Vince Young went the Tennessee Titans in 2006, and his career success is still debated. On the one hand, he has an impressive record as a starter, and in his last two seasons with the Titans, he posted impressive efficiency numbers throwing the football, both using the traditional passer rating as well as ESPN’s QBR. It is popular now to discount Vince Young’s improvement, but to any objective observer, he was passing the ball very well by the end of his Titans career and proved he can play quarterback in the NFL.
On the other hand, his career passing numbers are still pedestrian due to his mediocre TD-Int ratio, and the way he left Tennessee turned the fanbase against him. I believe Vince Young has to take considerable blame for that; while I think he had some good reasons to be frustrated with Jeff Fisher, reasons I will get to below, there is no excuse for the way he reacted that fateful day when he threw his shoulder pads in the stands and walked out on Fisher in the locker room. If he just behaved in a mature manner, he would have missed the rest of the season anyway with an injury and would not have tarnished his reputation, and maybe more teams would be willing to give him a shot and be patient with him. Now, he’s looked at as damaged goods, and as he approaches thirty, the other-worldly running ability that he once had will leave him, if it is not already almost gone. As I just said, VY should take a lot of blame for that, but shared blame should also go to the Titans and how they utilized their #3 pick.
I think Texas fans figured out that while Vince Young was a supreme athletic talent, he required grooming, patience, and commitment. His first two years at Texas had rocky moments to go along with his highlights, but when Mack Brown and Greg Davis built an offense dedicated around his gifts, he soared and became, in my opinion, the most impressive college quarterback I’ve personally seen. Based on this pattern and also the fact that his throwing was still a bit raw, I was hoping that he’d go to an organization that A) Really wanted him and B) Were willing to invest in him, both in molding an offense to him and putting good skill players around him. Unfortunately, the Titans were neither.
I’m not going to accuse the Titans for never running the read option or for never calling plays for Vince because that would not be true; they did, and you only need to go to Youtube and find some of his NFL highlights to see that. However, it was clear that Jeff Fisher and Norm Chow did not want Vince but wanted Matt Leinart and resisted change if they could help it. While the next Titan OC, Mike Heimderdinger, did more to help Vince, Fisher still mystifyingly preferred the aging Kerry Collins even when he was playing horribly, only reinserting Vince Young at the orders of the owner. In Young’s first few years, he barely had any credible receivers and the Titans were thought to have the worst receiving corps. in the league by many analysts. He did have good runningbacks during his time at Tennessee, but in many ways, Vince was caged by Fisherball. I think it is telling that in his last two years when he finally got to play an extended time with Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt, Vince Young put up very good numbers. Basically, when he finally got some help and when Heimerdinger put in some concepts to fit Vince, he played very well, well enough to even lead the league in passer rating for a bit. What a surprise.
I recount this only to show that Vince Young, in many ways, had to find a way to succeed despite what his team and his coaches were doing. This is not a call for pity for him; many players find themselves in that boat, and it’s still incumbent upon them to work hard. However, from an organizational standpoint, there is no reason to make the development of your #3 pick that difficult. If you wanted him, you should take the time and resources to help him succeed as best as you can. That includes considering "new" football concepts (though they are not that new) and building your team accordingly. Alex Smith was brushed off as a bust just a couple of years ago; now, because of Harbaugh’s coaching, he was considered a good trading chip and was just sent to the Chiefs for a second rounder and another pick. His replacement, Colin Kaepernick, just went to the Super Bowl running the read option from the Pistol. Amazing what systematic coaching dedicated to the strengths of your players will do.
I always laugh at many so-called NFL experts who state brazenly that such and such offense won’t work in the NFL because most of the time, such "analysis" does not come from actual football reasons but from appeals that the big boys of the NFL just won’t allow it. The defenses are too good, they say. Then the 2007 Patriots ripped through the league with a spread attack. Then the Dolphins turned heads with their success with the Wildcat. Now, the 49ers just went to the Super Bowl with significant use of the read option, routinely thought of as more of a gimmick play by NFL fans in the past. But I thought designed QB runs won’t work in the NFL…
I’ll reiterate: Vince Young is not blameless, but it is definitely sad to see the 49ers run an offense that I believe that Vince Young could have been just as successful in as Colin Kaepernick. It’s too bad that NFL coaches are often a close-minded bunch who think things that don’t fit their cookie-cutter molds are automatically doomed to failure. How does that apply to our current Texas Longhorns? I don’t think the problem these past few years is a lack of raw talent per se; most of our players could have easily found homes at other schools. The problem is that we did not recruit talent for a particular system, didn’t develop that talent, and then forced players to make do with what they were given. Some found success (Colt McCoy) and some did not (Garrett Gilbert). As far as Gilbert is concerned, I will agree that he should have been better. I also don’t think the coaches did him or anyone else any favors by throwing him into a dysfunctional offense. It’s the coaches job to put players in the best position to succeed by understanding their players’ strengths, their own philosophy in drafting/recruiting players, and understanding their own long-term vision. As we can see from Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Vince Young, and Garrett Gilbert, that can make a world of difference.