Sunday, April 30, 2006

Titans Get Young: The Great Experiment Begins

Sam's Place Sports Bar & Grill (pictured, left) in Nashville's Hillsboro Village is a fine place to watch the NFL draft. It's 11 o'clock on Saturday morning, and too early for alcohol, but that doesn't stop the predominantly male (all ages) crowd from getting started. Beer and sandwiches all around, and the clientele of about 30 or so, along with a new barmaid whom I've never seen before—with a nice, sensually protruding belly and a just barely visible lower-back tattoo peeking out of her low-rise jeans—are tuned into the big screen and ESPN's broadcast of the NFL Draft.

Things happen early because the hometown Tennessee Titans—9-23 the past two seasons—will draft in the third spot in the opening round, and will get their choice of promising quarterbacks: Vince Young of Texas or Matt Leinart of USC. There's a palpable tension at this generally affable and large drinking establishment, and the guy next to me, about 30, is asking questions.

"Who do you want 'em to take?" he says.

"Well, I've gone around and around about it. I was dreaming of it last night..."

"They've gotta go with Leinart."

"Well," I say, but without much conviction, "I don't know. Young's amazing. And it seems like they like him."

"Leinart's the better quarterback. He's ready to play. Norm Chow [Titans offensive coordinator] coached him at USC. It's a perfect fit."

"Yeah, but Young is an astounding talent."

"Hey, remember Akili Smith?"

Actually, I did. Akili Smith was an African American quarterback from Oregon chosen as the #3 overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He was selected just after Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb, and BEFORE Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt, Champ Bailey, David Boston, Chris McAlister, Daunte Culpepper, and Jevon Kearse. Smith was out of the game by 2005, a complete and unadulterated NFL bust, who in fact never played another down of football after 2002, and played in only three games after the year 2000. Smith was 6'3," weighed 220, had a gun for an arm and was known to be both mobile and elusive. He couldn't cut it. His career QB rating was 52.8.

"Well, Vince Young is another Akili Smith," my new friend insisted.

I said, "Well, I don't know—"

"Come on! He had a Wonderlic of 3!"

I know sarcasm when I hear it. I don't even know what the Wonderlic—an intelligence test administered to prospective NFL players—goes up to, but I'm sure Young had to have gotten more than a 3. (Didn't he? Now I started to, uh, wonder.)

Then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue strode to the podium at Radio City Music Hall. (Yes, pro football certainly is high-class popular stage entertainment. Why else would they mount this media-frenzied extravaganza at the home of the Rockettes?) You could hear a pin drop at Sam's, as Tagliabue announced that the Tennessee Titans, with the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, selected...Vince Young of the University of Texas.

The mixed reaction among the barflies was strange indeed. My friend to my right threw his hands up in desperation. He scoffed loudly. He banged his fist. Then he grabbed his cell phone and called a buddy to commiserate.

Some of the guys in the bar almost chuckled. A nervous kind of chuckle. The kind of chuckle that says, "Omigod, they went with the big fish. But can he swim?"

On reflection, I had the feeling more than 50% of the crowd felt the Titans had made a calculated error.

Young is an immensely gifted athlete, but Leinart can definitely play quarterback. He did it hugely at Southern California for three straight years. He executed a pro-style offense with assuredness. He won a ton of games. He's poised in the pocket, he hands off efficiently, he knows how to run a typical NFL offensive set, he throws with generally good accuracy and he knows how to find receivers in the seams. Only his deep ball is in some question. He indeed was tutored by Chow at USC, and he appears the closest thing in many years the NFL has had to a rookie QB who could probably start at his position on Opening Day and be wholly competitive. In fact, if Leinart had opted to come out for the draft in 2005, he was projected as the #1 overall pick. Waiting a year supposedly has cost him $16 million, since he dropped down to a #10 pick (by the ecstatic Phoenix Cardinals, who can now put Leinart in a backfield with Edgerrin James, and throwing to speedster wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald).

It's actually a rather nice ending for Leinart, who had to sweat watching a lot of lesser names get drafted ahead of him.

But what of Young and the Titans?

The scuttlebutt is that Chow lobbied for Leinart. He lost out to general manager Floyd Reese, who is close to Titans owner Bud Adams, but also is a rather strong-willed fellow and a total pro GM who has had marvelous selections in the past. Reese is very good at what he does, though admittedly, Titans fans have gotten antsy with the team's dismal performances the past two seasons. (Where are all the good draft choices now?)

The fact that Coach Jeff Fisher went to Southern Cal was supposed to be another harbinger than Leinart would get the nod. But let's face it, that's a dumb reason to want to draft somebody.

So this one smells like Reese's pick all the way—with Fisher and Chow left to find out exactly what this 6'5," 230-pound Adonis can do. And what he can't do. Like hand-off with precision accuracy. Or function with poise in a pro offense. Or read defensive schemes. Or look off his primary receiver. Or know when to throw and when to run, preferably doing more of the former.

Young is a big, soon-to-be-expensive project. With improvements due in their linebacking corps and holes to plug in the still-shaky secondary, and support needed in the offensive line as well, the Titans opted for glitzy offense in selecting Young and then adding Southern Cal tough-yardage runner LenDale White in the second round. It gives the team a new look, for sure. White, in fact, could be a great one. Then there's Young, now in the almost impossible position of savior.

Young (left, on the cover of SI, winning this year's Rose Bowl) throws the ball kind of side-armed. That's very weird for a pro QB. Yet he throws with seeming accuracy and speed. His superb athleticism makes him look tremendous in everything he does. He's so fast and strong, that even when he seems to be in trouble, he always finds a spectacular way out of it, using either his arm or legs. Once he's loose on the run, he's hell on wheels, and he's hard to bring down.

The great experiment, however, entails reigning in the daredevil and making of him a consistent, scheme-focused NFL QB who will know how and when to turn on his magic powers as a runner without handicapping the overall offensive plan. This is something that current Titans incumbent QB Steve McNair did extremely well, lest we forget that he took the team to Super Bowl XXXIV and was the co-MVP of the league (with Peyton Manning) in 2003.

Fisher, echoing Reese, speaks of Young almost as a racehorse, talking about "bringing him along slowly." At the same time, he gushed about the new kinds of offensive plays that can go into the playbook. Chow spoke not of toying with the eccentric Young mechanics, but instead of preparing him to execute a game plan and to deal with the other mental demands of his position. He's clearly a beautiful horse, Vince Young, but can he round into form?

Under the circumstances, coming off two lousy seasons, it seems hard to believe the Titans will slog through another mediocre year while Superman sits on the bench holding a clipboard. For box office reasons alone, it would be tempting to feed him to the fire. Even improvising, and being chased all over the field by, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars' swarming defense, he might win 5 games, which would be an improvement over last year's 4-12 mark.

The idea of bringing Young along slowly makes perfect sense—in a perfect world. But McNair is older, on the downside, and has contract problems. His backup, Billy Volek, looked subpar in 2005, after an excellent 2004 when he got a lot of playing time due to McNair's ongoing injury woes. Next in line is Matt Mauck. Hmmmm...

In drafting Young, the Titans made a ballsy and risky, risky move. They opted to focus on the guy's upside all the way, and are gambling that he can learn to do this right—to grasp in time what Matt Leinart already has a handle on.

I semi-hollered out to no one in particular, "Get ready for a lot of exciting losses..."

A few of the regulars semi-nodded. There was no clear-cut jubilation at Sam's, that's for sure.

On the other hand, the franchise is down, and Young represents more than assured mechanical efficiency. He represents innovative, dynamic play, and the hope for a turnaround in fortunes that puts the team in the spotlight. The execs went with the beautiful stud, who, if he's got the gumption and the instincts to move to this next level, could re-write the definition of a pro NFL quarterback.

But does he? Can he? Will he?

It says here we'll find out sooner than later.


Tman said...

If you were at Jacksons across the street from Sam's, you would have heard a raucous cheer when Vince was announced, the place went nuts.

Martin Brady said...

That's interesting. It might be a harder-core group at Sam's, where there's more cynicism about how highly touted draft choices can go sour. Now that all is said and done, I have to say that I'm glad the Titans took Young. It's a higher-risk choice, but the rewards will be huge if he works out. Along the way to seeing if he develops, it'll probably be exciting too.

Thanks for your feedback.