Monday, December 10, 2007

Titans Blow a Big One: Inept Young a Big Reason for Collapse

The Tennessee Titans blew a big ball game yesterday. Their record fell to 7-6, and their playoff hopes as an AFC wild-card team grew dimmer with the continued success of the Cleveland Browns (8-5) and Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4). The Titans probably need to win their three remaining games, and even then they may need some help to get into the postseason.

It was bad enough that they lost at home in front of a supportive raucous crowd. It was equally bad that they lost on a day when their defense played inspired football and shut down the sometimes potent San Diego Chargers offense, registering five sacks and three interceptions. The D even kept the lid on LaDainian Tomlinson for most of the game, helping the team grab a 17-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Then, with 7:29 remaining in the game, and still holding a 17-10 lead, the Titans got the ball back. All they had to do was sustain a fairly lengthy drive, get close enough for a field goal, and let Rob Bironas kick them into a 20-10 lead that, barring miracles—and given how the defense was playing—would have secured victory.

But the Titans could get no closer than the San Diego 46-yard-line, and, with 2:24 remaining in the game, they turned the ball back to the Chargers, who then launched an 80-yard, game-tying drive that culminated in a TD with only nine seconds left in regulation. The game went into overtime, and after each team had a shot at the ball, San Diego took control and LT finished Tennessee off with a 16-yard TD run.

I don’t blame the defense for this disappointing turn of events. They were fantastic this day. They engaged the Chargers in an incredibly physical battle. True, they yielded 20 straight points in the fourth quarter and overtime, but to say they failed wouldn’t be accurate.

The Titans’ defense gave the team ample opportunity to close the Chargers out early—if only the Titans had an offense to speak of. After physically pounding Philip Rivers & Co. in the first half, the Titans could only take a 3-0 lead into the locker room. They outmuscled a very good opponent for a very long time, and almost made it to the finish line, except—and I hate to say it—Vince Young suddenly became the real roadblack to success.

You can’t leave any defense out on the field constantly and expect them to play perfect football. The Chargers were hitting hard themselves, and the game was one of the most physical, even brutalizing contests you’re ever going to see. At one time or the other, the Titans had sent Rivers, TE Antonio Gates and all-world LB Shawne Merriman to the bench with injuries. Merriman never returned in the second half. Various Titans suffered the same fate. But when Vince Young can only move the ball 28 yards, at a stage late in the game when the team needed a more extended drive—to score even three points, to kill a lot of clock, and to give the D some much-needed rest—then you have the reason for the overall failure.

Time and again, the Titans’ defense gave Young a chance to put points on the board. Time and again, he stalled out. His game stats were 13-21 for 121 yards, with no TDs and two critical, poorly thrown interceptions. Then when it counted most, when a prime-time QB has to play his best, Young couldn’t do squat.

Unlike other young AFC quarterbacks—Derek Anderson (third year, Browns), Jay Cutler (second year, Broncos), Trent Edwards (rookie, Bills)—Young does not appear to be growing into this job. It seems the NFL has finally caught up to his athletic self. While Young gives clueless responses in his postgame press conference—”We just gotta make plays...our defense played good...I’m not worrying about this game, I’m just thinking about Kansas [City, the Titans next opponent]”—these others are clearly explaining what their offenses are doing and how they are playing within them. Cutler threw four TD passes and no INTs in the 6-7 Broncos’ 41-7 rout of the Chiefs. Edwards also threw four TDs with no picks, as the Bills (now 7-6, and ahead of the Titans in the playoff pecking order) mangled the Dolphins 38-17. Anderson threw two TD passes in the now 8-5 Browns’ 24-18 victory over the Jets.

Those three teams are the Titans’ main competitors for the final AFC wild-card berth. At the quarterback position, all three look to be in better shape than Tennessee, which plays kick-ass defense and has an improving Jerome Bettis-style runner in LenDale White, but is getting mostly confusion from its stud signal-caller.

To be a little fairer, it’s true that the Titans apparently have mediocre receivers. But would they be better if Young knew how to run the passing offense with any savvy? He doesn’t look confident in it. He makes the occasional connection, but it’s usually a Chinese fire-drill of a play all-around. He has a quick release and he fires the ball with laser-like speed, but he clearly doesn’t yet know how to “go through his rotations,” as they say, and find secondary targets with any consistency.

It is interesting to note that Young appears to be well-committed to the idea that he will stay in the pocket and conduct himself like a “conventional” quarterback, not defaulting to Mike Vick-style scrambling. Clearly this is the way to go where his development is concerned, yet ironically, his more free-wheeling approach to his rookie 2006 season seemed to make the offense more productive while taking advantage of his obvious, purely physical gifts.

It’s a quandary for the Titans: Keep your franchise player reined in as he learns, or let him loose in the interests of potential short-term, and game-winning, results?

You can see the frustration on Young’s postgame face. We feel his pain. We want him desperately to succeed. Chances of it happening in 2007 headed a little bit further south on Sunday.

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