Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Set Pieces: Vince Young is not the same; he is a martian.

With the Draft behind us and the bulk of free agency settled, there are two months between now and the 2008 football season, when the NFL's epic story continues with another chapter. In that time, TiT will be looking at the players, coaches, and situations that will form their own small stories and will play a large role in driving our experience of the season as a whole. Today, we look at the Vince Young, and why he either finds or loses himself this year.

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For the most part, I know exactly how I feel about the 2006 draft class at this point. Mario Williams was grotesquely underrated and has grown exponentially in response to adversity. Reggie Bush was the victim of a media that didn’t understand who he was and who he wasn’t, and is faced with an identity crisis that might swallow his potential whole. Vernon Davis has one more year to get it all together or he’s a workout wonder and nothing more. For whatever reason, the course of these first rounders was relatively clear within two seasons, something that makes my life much easier. After all, if the league is an epic, it’s best to establish where our characters stand early on so that their development can have some relation to the text as a whole.

Vince Young is by far the biggest and most frustrating exception to this trend. Year one was this crazy whirlwind of action and achievement. He just wins games! He’s going to the Pro Bowl! He’s getting them in playoff contention! The flurry of success masked Young’s flaws and carried him into his second year as the pinnacle of his class, only to have the whole world we built for him swept from under his feet. The thrill of expectations met in his rookie season was completely overtaken by the disappointment of watching someone we were so sure had risen to the occasion flounder AFTER we’d invested some certainty in him. Just as easily as we’d let initial success mask his flaws, we let subsequent difficulties eclipse his gifts, returning Young to a sort of weird blankness.

That blankness would be less troubling for Young and those of us who think he can be a special quarterback were it not for Young’s ever present nemesis, Merrill Hoge. Truth be told, I’m one of the few people who follow football that doesn’t hate Hoge. At the very least, he takes stances that are controversial and don’t just sound controversial, something that is all too rare in sports media. Still, for whatever reason, Hoge has seemed to want nothing more than to witness Young’s fall from grace ever since VY entered the league, seemingly because Young violates so many of the sacred cows of what is means to be a quarterback in the NFL. Had Young established himself in some clear way up to this point, Hoge would be less significant, as we’d already have our opinions, but in the absence of Young’s own identity it would seem that many are finding their arguments framed by Hoge’s simply because he’s the only one with any explanation of Young at the moment.

I blame Jeff Fisher for letting anyone other than Young himself set the tone of the discussion surrounding Vince Young. In attempting to shield Young from criticism, Fisher misjudged the fact that a specimen like Vince Young, who enters into the league with the potential to change everything, doesn’t have the luxury of hiding places; he’s the city on a hill of quarterbacks. The use of “unconventional game planning” doesn’t solve the problems either, because it misses the point. Young was never supposed to overcome conventions by creating new, individual conventions of his own; he was supposed to change the existing conventions once and for all. Accusations that Young can’t work out of the pocket are ridiculous. Aside from having the physical tools to do so (Young stands 6’5”, whereas Vick, to whom he is compared in terms of physical talent, was only 6’0”), Young proved during his time at Texas that he is a more than capable passer. Furthermore, his style of QB runs were never at their best when designed for the run’s sake, but rather were the result of his unique ability to use his speed and size to thrive in the chaos that emerges from failed plays. To say Young has to become either traditional passer or Vick style scrambler is to limit him; Young is the struggle of chthonian and Apollonian. Trying to come into commune with the tumultuous workings of Young’s natural gifts, an eastern slant, may work well for creating a sense of peace but it damn sure isn’t working on a football field. Instead, the western struggle needs to be embraced, making his unique play the art produced by that struggle. Rather than attempting to filter Young’s talents comfortable into one vein, it is Fisher’s responsibility as a coach of his stature to cultivate Young as the player he was always meant to become, and that cultivation relies on freedom and after the fact correction, not caution and preemptive medicine.

The talk this year is that Fisher is going to lean on Young more than ever, and that is why this is the year when the question of who he is will be answered. Any success the team has will be largely based on Young’s own ability; he lacks the offensive support to attribute success to another player. Likewise, his failures will also come to rest squarely on his shoulders, as his supporting case (yes, even the receivers) are not so bad as to drag him down with them. Merrill Hoge’s criticisms haven’t been unfair because Young’s performance deserves more recognition; they’ve been unfair because we haven’t gotten to see the real Vince Young, the one who threw for over 3000 yards his senior year at Texas, the one who can singlehandedly turn a broken play into an offensive firework show, the one who has shown he can make unpredictability the foundation of a successful offense (and yes, that includes the pros, where his first season proved that point). It is that Young who needs to either emerge or be proven a fraud this season. Once those talents are given a chance to show, then and only then do we all get to say who Young is and what he’s supposed to be.

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