By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
We couldn’t even make it two weeks after the Super Bowl before the bizarre off-season storylines came out.
There was the comic-dripping gold of Jeff Garcia training former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell on his return to the NFL. These training sessions will likely not include any orders of Krispy Kreme donuts; despite the fact Garcia loves them.
But then there was the headline of Vince Young taking out a seven-figure loan to throw himself a $300,000 birthday in 2011 despite the fact he was running low on cash, which comes despite a rookie contract that included $26 million guaranteed. The news came from Ronnie Peoples, a former financial advisor to Young, who of course denies the report.
Though if you have followed Young’s career, it would seem to add up with his pattern of odd behavior.
For a man with onion-thick skin off the field and issues on the field, Young did deliver several moments of brilliance to lead his teams to victory. That grace under pressure goes against his normal composure, which would tell us he couldn’t do the things he did late in games. But that’s part of the allure of Young’s rollercoaster career. Timing was everything for him.
Let’s take a look back at that career, because this is one story that may have already finished before Young’s 30th birthday.
Building hype in college
Young had a fantastic career at Texas, going 30-2 as a starter and winning the Davey O’Brien Award (nation’s best quarterback) for his junior year in 2005. In a career with some great comebacks and rushing performances, Young may have saved his best for his final game.
Before the SEC made title games boring, there was an instant classic played in the 2006 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas for the national championship. On a field loaded with future NFL players, Young was named MVP after completing 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards and rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
Down 38-26 with 6:42 left, Young led Texas on consecutive touchdown drives, including the 8-yard game-winning touchdown run on 4th-and-5 with 0:19 left. The comeback ended Pete Carroll’s 34-game winning streak at USC.
Even though he completed 65.2 percent of his passes in 2005, Young was very much a running quarterback with 718 passes and 457 rushes at Texas (sacks count as rushes in college). It was not clear how he would translate to the NFL where you need to pass at a much higher ratio to sustain success.
But Young’s popularity and success at Texas did make him one of the most-hyped players leading into the 2006 NFL draft.
Five up-and-down years in Tennessee
The draft process was not without incident as Young’s infamous Wonderlic score was initially reported to be a six out of a possible 50. His “official” score is a 16, though one has to wonder if he was simply given a do-over.
In the end, it did not hurt his draft stock.
2006: Rookie of the Year
After being passed over by his hometown Houston Texans, Young went No. 3 overall to the Tennessee Titans. He was part of the quarterback class with Matt Leinart (No. 10 to Arizona) and Jay Cutler (No. 11 to Denver). All of these guys have been on multiple teams already.
But Jeff Fisher also brought in veteran Kerry Collins in 2006, and for the next five years the two would alternate the starting quarterback job with injury (to Young) often dictating the choice.
At the end of the five seasons, these were the results:
- Young was 30-17 as a starter (0-1 in playoffs) with a 75.7 passer rating.
- Collins was 15-17 as a starter (0-1 in playoffs) with a 74.6 passer rating.
Same number of losses, twice as many wins for Young despite not a big difference in passing efficiency. Of course Young had the rushing advantage and was much better in the clutch as you will see.
But the “Vince just wins” mantra swung the pendulum from “preposterous crap” to “legitimately carrying the team.” After Collins struggled miserably to start the 2006 season, Young took over and led the Titans to an 8-5 record. Seven of the wins were by 1-7 points.
Some of those wins were great performances from Young.
There was a rookie record with a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Giants. Young passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns, while famously scrambling for a first down after Mathias Kiwanuka gave up on a fourth-down sack. There was a 39-yard rushing touchdown in overtime to beat the Texans in Houston.
Some of the wins were absurd from the quarterback’s perspective and more about the team playing at a ridiculous level.
Against Jacksonville, the Titans scored 24 points, and 21 came from interception returns by Pacman Jones and Chris Hope, and a fumble return by Cortland Finnegan. Even on the lone field goal drive by the offense, the drive started at the JAX 14 because of a 70-yard kick return (plus penalty) by Pacman. Young contributed essentially nothing to the win.
In a big win over the 10-1 Colts, Young had two interceptions. But to end the game, Rob Bironas kicked a 60-yard game-winning field goal. Young’s 66.7 passer rating ranked 30th in the league in 2006. He did rush for 552 yards and seven touchdowns, which would both be career highs. Young rushed for five touchdowns the rest of his career.
But for his overall effort, Young won Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Before the recent rookie explosion in the NFL, these were very rare feats for any rookie quarterback.
Despite the early accolades, Young was quoted as saying he thought about retiring from football after his rookie season. Young would recant those remarks, but the fact it was even a story in the first place is very unusual for a player coming off a successful rookie season.
2007: Lone playoff season
With an improved defense, Young had a bit more success in 2007 with the Titans making the playoffs, but individually he did not have as many flashy plays nor did he lead a single game-winning drive. In fact it was Collins coming off the bench twice in Houston and Indianapolis (Week 17) for an injured Young to deliver wins that pushed the Titans to 10-6 and the postseason. Collins also won his only start of the season.
In the 2007 AFC Wild Card game in San Diego, Young struggled to move the offense, completing 16 of 29 passes for 138 yards and an interception in a 17-6 loss. It would be the only playoff game of Young’s career.
2008: Injury and depression
The good times did not last long for Young.
Young injured his knee in the 2008 season opener. Two days later Young disappeared without his cell phone. He was reportedly depressed after the home crowd booed him for an interception. A fear of suicide was linked to the story, though Young’s agent said the story was blown out of proportion. This seems to be the common theme with Young’s off-field problems. Someone always denies it for him, but how much needs to be out there before a pattern of bad choices is clearly established?
After the team was winning with Collins, Fisher decided to keep Young as the backup for the rest of the season. Tennessee started 10-0 and finished 13-3; the best regular-season record in the league in 2008.
2009: Return to the Pro Bowl
Collins remained the starter in 2009, though with his struggles and the defense regressing – it does not get much worse than a 59-0 loss in New England – the Titans started 0-6. Following the bye week, Young regained his job as starting quarterback and led a second-half rebound: Tennessee finished 8-2 only losing to Indianapolis and San Diego, who were both on long winning streaks.
Young was actually playing at a Pro Bowl-level this time, and again was pulling out improbable close wins. He had six game-winning drives in 10 starts after not having any since his rookie season.
Despite not being one of the first five options, Young made the Pro Bowl as an alternate for the second time in his career. He actually had more Pro Bowl selections until the 2011 season ended than Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers did. Young is one of eight quarterbacks to start their careers after 1960, make multiple Pro Bowls, and have more Pro Bowl appearances than postseason starts.
It was clear Fisher had to keep Young as the starter again, who was a good match with running back Chris Johnson in the backfield. Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009.
2010: End of Fisher, end of Young in Tennessee
Based on ESPN’s QBR, Young did maintain his Pro Bowl-level of play in 2010, with a 70.6 QBR after a 70.3 QBR in 2009. However, Young only threw for more than 175 yards in one game.
After a 4-2 start, Young lost the last three games he played in, including a Week 11 game against Washington he failed to finish because of a thumb injury. Young thought he was going to reenter the game, but never did. Afterwards he had a post-game meltdown on Fisher, cursing and storming out of the room. Young threw his jersey and shoulder pads into the stands.
When Fisher announced Rusty Smith would be the starter, that was the end of Young in Tennessee. Fisher was gone first after the season, but the Titans released Young on July 28, 2011.
And like that, he was gone.
2011-12: After the Titans
It only took a day for Young to get a new job (one-year deal), though that team can only dream they never made the move.
Young went to Philadelphia where Andy Reid has always done a great job with maximizing a quarterback’s talent. Michael Vick always gets hurt too, so Young did start three games in the 2011 season.
But before the season Young proclaimed the Eagles as a “dream team” due to all the preseason hype they received for collecting talent. The results were a disappointing 8-8 finish in which the team started 1-4 and 4-8.
At least Young’s first Philadelphia start included a brilliant game-winning drive against the Giants on Sunday Night Football. Young had thrown three interceptions on the night, but with the game tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter, he led an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that took 8:51 off the clock. Philadelphia converted six straight third downs, and Young was 7-of-9 for 67 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He also ran twice for four yards.
But any hope of a return to form for Young was squashed after losses of 18 and 17 points against New England and Seattle respectively. Young threw nine interceptions on just 114 passes in 2011 for the Eagles.
Going to the Buffalo Bills last May, Young failed to survive the preseason. Two days after Young finished 12/26 for 103 yards and two bad interceptions against Pittsburgh, the Bills cut him on August 27, 2012.
Since then Young has been out of the NFL, and relatively out of the headlines until this week’s news about the embarrassing reasons he took out a loan during the 2011 lockout.
Young needs a comeback in a big way, which is something he used to be good at.
In his career Young was 7-9 (.438) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, which is a very good record. But when you add in the game-winning drive opportunities, then Young’s overall record at clutch wins is 13-11 (.542), which is the third-highest documented percentage ever (min. 20 games).
Top Documented Clutch Records (Min. 20 Games)
After you pick up your jaw, consider that virtually all of Young’s success came in 2006 and 2009. He had 11 of his 13 game-winning drives in those seasons.
Young’s four fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2006 tied the rookie regular-season record held by Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Andy Dalton (2011) and Andrew Luck (2012). He also tied Roethlisberger with the rookie regular-season record for game-winning drives with five, but Luck (7) broke that this season.
Even at 24 games it is still a small sample size, and it is unlikely Young could continue his success. Right now it does not look like he can even continue his career in the NFL.
As mentioned before with the fluky Kiwanuka play and incredible 60-yard field goal to beat the 2006 Colts, some of Young’s wins were hardly the stuff of quarterback legend:
10/15/2006 at Washington: After a series of three-and-out drives enabled Washington to tie the game, Young handed the ball off five times in a row as Rob Bironas kicked the 30-yard game-winning field goal with 5:11 left. Mark Brunell threw an interception to seal the win.
12/20/2009 vs. Miami: After Miami erased a 24-9 deficit to force overtime, Chad Henne threw an interception returned to the MIA 27. Chris Johnson ran the ball three times for -1 yard before Bironas kicked the 46-yard game-winning field goal.
10/10/2010 at Dallas: On two go-ahead touchdown drives, the Titans started at the DAL 1 and the DAL 5. Johnson gained all the yards for both scores.
Those were three game-winning drives where Young literally did nothing. Here are the stats on all of Young’s drive in clutch opportunities compared to the rest of his career.
Vince Young in the Clutch (Including Playoffs)
Young’s stats in clutch situations bolster the fact that he was not overly exceptional in a lot of these moments, at least not with his passing. The only real improvement came in his TD:INT ratio.
But when you look at the full picture of 24 games, you do see a lot of positives and ways the record actually could have been even better. In the 11 losses, Young only finished multiple drive attempts on three of them, and his team had a fourth-quarter lead five times. There were a few losses where he had little-to-nothing to do with the loss:
11/12/2006 vs. Baltimore: Defense blew a 26-17 lead in the fourth quarter. After Steve McNair led a comeback for a 27-26 lead, Young had 1:50 left. He drove the offense to the BAL 31 before the conservative Fisher went with three runs. Bironas’ 43-yard field goal was blocked with 0:33 left.
12/9/2007 vs. San Diego: Tennessee led 17-3 in the fourth quarter. San Diego tied the game with 0:09 to play, forcing overtime. The Titans went three-and-out in overtime, with Young only throwing incomplete on 3rd-and-7 at his own 5. The Chargers then scored the game-winning touchdown run.
1/6/2008 at San Diego: Down 10-6 to start the fourth quarter, Bironas missed a 38-yard field goal with 14:03 left. San Diego added a touchdown to take a big 17-6 lead. On their final two drives the Titans went three-and-out and Young threw an interception.
10/3/2010 vs. Denver: Leading 20-16 in the fourth quarter, the defense allows a late go-ahead touchdown. The Titans fumble the ensuing kickoff, allowing Denver to add a field goal (26-20 lead). Young’s attempt needed to go 77 yards in 0:23 without a timeout. His Hail Mary fell incomplete to end the game.
10/31/2010 at San Diego: Down 27-19, Young threw a 71-yard touchdown to Nate Washington, but the two-point pass was incomplete. San Diego scored again and botched the extra point, but Young was injured on a scramble and did not return. Collins’ comeback attempt ended when Johnson dropped a pass on 4th-and-2 in the red zone.
11/14/2010 at Miami: Down 23-17, Young ran for an 8-yard gain on 3rd-and-10, forcing a punt. Miami added a touchdown, leaving Young 5:09 left to score two touchdowns. He threw an interception on 4th-and-20.
11/13/2011 vs. Arizona: Now with the Eagles, the game was tied 14-14. Vick was injured on a second-down scramble, taking Young off the bench and into the game on third down. He just handed off to LeSean McCoy, and the Eagles kicked a go-ahead field goal. Arizona scored the game-winning touchdown, and Vick returned for the rest of the loss. Hard to say anything about Young here, but it’s a failed game-winning drive by rule.
Even if you just go with one 43-yard field goal by Bironas and Vick not leaving the game against Arizona, then Young’s record would be 14-9 (.609), moving him ahead of Tom Brady. Wow.
Young’s most memorable moments did come late in games, but much like college when he arguably saved his best for a game against Matt Leinart, he did the same thing in the NFL.
In 2009 Young started at home against the Arizona Cardinals, who were starting Leinart in place of the injured Kurt Warner. Leinart led the Cardinals on an 80-yard go-ahead touchdown drive (17-13) with 12:20 left. Young tried to drive the team 98 yards late, but Kenny Britt fumbled at the end of a 51-yard catch.
Getting the ball back with 2:37 left at his own 1, Young led the drive that truly is the stuff of legends. Absolutely needing the touchdown, Young converted three different fourth-down situations, including the game-winning touchdown pass: a 10-yard play to Britt in the end zone on 4th-and-10 with no time left. That is right out of Hollywood.
On the 99-yard drive Young dropped back on all 18 plays and was 9-of-16 for 94 yards, a 6-yard run, and a 1-yard sack. Leinart must hate this guy.
It was easily the most impressive game-winning drive of Young’s NFL career, and one of the best on record. But if Young is to make another NFL comeback, it will have to be his biggest one yet. He will have to convince someone he could still play.
A career that came too early?
For better or worse, Young’s career was all about timing. He saved some of his best moments for the end of games, which is what his fans will remember him for. You can take away Reggie Bush’s Heisman, but you cannot take away Young’s Rose Bowl MVP.
But there was also bad timing, even if it was just a moment like going to Tennessee when the team traded Steve McNair to Baltimore. McNair was expected to mentor Young, which could have helped him ease into things. McNair also had his personal demons in life, but he was not the annual bad headline that Young became.
Perhaps if Young was born a few years later he could have thrived in a NFL that was friendlier and more imaginative to athletic quarterbacks. Could you imagine Young lining up in the pistol and using the zone-read option back when Chris Johnson was still great? Fisher’s conservative offensive approach was probably never a good fit for Young.
The other thing that has recently changed about being a young NFL quarterback is the job making them more financially responsible. Rookie contracts are now reasonable under the new agreement. Young received $26 million guaranteed as the No. 3 pick in 2006. Andrew Luck’s entire contract is worth $22.1 million as the No. 1 pick in 2012.
As his history shows, Young burns (or burned) through money at an embarrassing rate. He was too immature to deal with the money and fame.
Yet the same guy that cannot handle fans booing and throws a temper tantrum on his coach is the same quarterback capable of dynamic game-changing plays to win games. Why that Vince Young could not have taken over more as every-day Vince Young will remain an unsolved mystery.
Bust? Not entirely. See the guy pounding meat* with Garcia for that distinction.
Disappointment? Eternally so.
Young could have had a long career and been a comeback king. Instead he ends up as the biggest clown at his own $300,000 birthday party.
*That was a Rocky reference. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.