Monday, August 4, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008: Tennessee Titans

I come back to the quarterback class of 2006 a lot on this blog, mostly because of the three diverging narratives offered by Leinart, Cutler, and Young. Perhaps the most interesting difference between all three is found in the means by which their coaches and teams have chosen to shape them. Cutler’s development has been bizarrely hands-off, especially considering that he may have the best deep arm of the three. Despite his incredible physical talent, he goes largely unnoticed, a potentially very good piece of a larger puzzle, which could certainly be due to his being in Denver, but probably also speaks to his general demeanor as a player. Leinart, by contrast, is coddled at almost every opportunity. He struggles last year, and the team dummies up an injury excuse for starting Kurt Warner, even going so far as to establish the dreaded “quarterback platoon” later in the year. Whether or not he’s talented, we’re given almost no opportunity to really see him play, as the Cardinals seem hell bent on protecting this shiny new toy they bought so as to maintain the shine he had upon entry into the league. It is almost the exact opposite of the image-free development of Cutler, with Leinart being practically all image at this point.

Flicking Ashes - - I-20

The development of Vince Young sits at an awkward medium between these two opposites. Ask around and there is no question as to who is the future of the Titans; Vince Young has become the heartbeat of that team. His ability to change the nature of offensive football and force defenses into uncomfortable chaos is routinely brought up when discussing his positive attributes. His failings as a traditional passer are paraded out when he struggles. Either way, VY is the focus of the Titans media attention, his image and ability firmly connected to the rising and falling of the team’s fortunes. Yet there is a difference between this focus on Young’s image as franchise savior and that of Leinart in Arizona. For all of the hype that the media and the team create for Young, they seem to do very little to protect him from the backlash of that hype. The reason Young’s failings as a passer have become a favorite topic of Merrill Hoge certainly have something to do with Young’s unique skillset (though I point out that he’s certainly had more success than his fellow ‘06ers, none of whom catch the kind of heat he does). Still, the attention given to Young’s flaws must be at least in part due to the way the team has done almost nothing to protect VY from himself. This past year, with every single receiver on the board on the first day and a glaring need for a vertical threat, the team decided to reach for a running back and pick up a defensive end on the first day, waiting until the fourth round to even test the waters for receivers. Sure, they picked up Alge Crumpler, but his best days are behind him, and he does very little to stretch the field to give Young some targets for his big arm. Instead, the same cast of serviceable intermediate pass catchers will be making the rounds, and once again Young will be asked to extend himself beyond what he’s already shown us in a short time.

The thing is, I’m done questioning coach Jeff Fisher; the past two years have shown us he’s onto something in fitting Young to the team’s needs. Still, you have to feel sorry for Young as an oddly special piece in a system built for mundane, blunt, but efficient tools. Fisher’s successful teams, particularly those of the past two years have been ones that turn “scraping by” into an art form. His defense is built to turn games into ugly, hellish messes, with DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch routinely making offenses struggle at the line and a capable, underrated linebacker corps (headed by LB David Thornton) forcing teams to take deep risks too often. His offense is built around hulking, bruising backs wearing down defensive fronts (he made Travis Henry a star, and RB Lendale White is going to be a better pro back than Reggie Bush at this rate). The whole point of the system seems to be “we don’t need to beat you easily, we just need to survive, edge you out, and do the same next week.” It’s the kind of wisdom that comes from experience, and it works.

But is it good for Vince Young? That’s the question that is going to be answered this year, and as much faith as I have in Fisher, Young, and the Titans system as a whole, I worry that the answer to that question may very well be no. How long can you ask a developing quarterback to throw an entire offense on his back without giving him some tools that protect his particular problems, that make things a little bit easier, even if they come at the expense of a larger team need? Living for singular talents is no way to go, because the world inevitably crumbles around them, but is it really better to leave those talents to fend for themselves?

This has all been very VY-centric, and it doesn’t do justice to the pieces around him. I LOVE RB Chris Johnson, and think that he and Lendale White could create the kind of strange, unpredictable backfield offense that Fisher once had in Eddie George. I also think that the lines on both sides of the ball get nowhere near enough credit (DT Haynesworth could have been MVP last year). But the fact of the matter is that this team has been hitched to Young. If it’s going to go deep, it’s going to be because VY has finally figured out how to create lightning in a bottle. If it fails, it’s going to be because he couldn’t weather the storm of discovering his own way to use his gifts. I get what’s happening here, and I do think that Young being forced to create offense will eventually make him into the kind of versatile threat that he was always meant to be…IF he survives long enough to see his development through. That’s the trouble with maintaining such a perfect system around unprotected special individuals; if things go wrong, there’s no question who’s to blame. Asking Young to shoulder that scrutiny again seems neither fair nor prudent, but there’s no other way, and it's too difficult to tell whether it's the risky bet that pays dividends or the straw that breaks the camel's back.

PREDICTION: 10-6 (I believe in VY, and if they can keep up with the AFC South, this is one of the breeziest non-conference schedules this year.)

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