Coming of Age, Young Wins Again
NASHVILLE - The only thing missing was a Rose Parade.
Vince Young had his finest game as a pro Sunday, leading the Tennessee Titans to a 20-17 comeback victory against the Arizona Cardinals that was strikingly reminiscent of the heroics that delivered a national championship to the University of Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
The same quarterback was on the other side of the field, as former Southern California star Matt Leinart got his first start of the season for the Cardinals in place of injured Kurt Warner. Warner suffered a concussion in last week's 21-13 victory against the St. Louis Rams.
Tennessee's victory Sunday was nowhere near as explosive as Texas' 41-38 comeback win against USC, but the showcasing of Young's talent in the final minutes was eerily similar.
There was one very significant difference. In 2006, Young won the game on an 8-yard run with 19 seconds left. This time, Young showed he could win with the weapon that has been widely questioned - his arm - throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass as time ran out to cap an 18-play, 99-yard drive.
"The Rose Bowl ended with a great run by Vince Young," said Titans safety Michael Griffin, a teammate of Young's at Texas. "This one ended with a pass from him. I think you can see the maturity of Vince Young."
Young had his most productive passing game as a pro, going 27-for-43 for 387 yards. Tennessee's final drive started with 2:37 left, and during it Young was 9-for-16 for 94 yards.
Arizona (7-4) clearly was challenging Young to throw throughout the game and especially so on the final drive. Accordingly, Young said he knew he couldn't run on the final play.
"They wouldn't let me do that tonight," said Young, who had only an atypical four runs for 8 yards. "They wanted to make me throw the ball downfield."
His touchdown throw sailed to the back of the end zone and into the arms of leaping rookie wide receiver Kenny Britt. But Young kept the Arizona defense at bay on the play, making one jab step that threatened the run before he threw.
"It was hard," Young said. "It takes a lot of patience, confidence."
On the drive, Young converted once on third down and three times on fourth down, including the game-winner.
Young didn't rub in the fact he again had the edge on Leinart, who had a largely mistake-free game, completing 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.
The two 26-year-olds were born a week apart. "It's not about me and Matt competing," Young said. "I have lots of respect for him."
Young indicated he expects to square off many more times with Leinart and that maybe the two can have a long-running rivalry. "We need to start up the Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird chemistry," he joked.
Said Leinart: "I thought Vince played great. That is what it's all about, to put your team in position to win games. And he made plays in the last series, so hats off to him."
Young also declined the chance to have a last laugh at the critics who have maintained he's too one-dimensional and that his passing would never equal his running.
"I love everybody," Young said. "I love my haters." And he said that extends to an ESPN analyst who has been very critical of him.
"I got nothing against Merril Hoge. He's just doing his job," Young said, smiling broadly. "Love to him, too."
Owner savors validation
And with Tennessee becoming the first team in NFL history to start 0-6 and then win five in a row, love also is flowing from the man who ordered Young into the starting lineup five games ago, Titans owner Bud Adams.
Reflecting on the final drive, Adams said he had a hard time watching.
"I almost couldn't do it, because I was peeing in my pants," the 86-year-old said. "I'm serious."
Adams, one of the AFL's original owners, added that, "Fifty years I've been in this business, and this is the most exciting game I've seen."
He also is taking great pride in his timing, saying, "I said it's time to make a change right now."
Young's big night added another round of validation for Adams' decision to make him the No. 3 overall pick of the 2006 draft and for the lineup shake-up that benched veteran Kerry Collins, who was the first player to leave the Titans locker room Sunday.
"He's learned everything he needs to learn, and he's a tremendous player now," Adams said of Young. "He's going to be here for a long time."
Collins was under center for most of last season's surprising 13-3 campaign - and early playoff exit - after Fisher benched a struggling and injured Young during the first game of the 2008 regular season.
Young's dramatics, meanwhile, overshadowed another inspired game from Titans running back Chris Johnson, whose 154 yards on 18 carries included an 85-yard touchdown dash.
It was Johnson's sixth consecutive game with at least 125 rushing yards. That ties an NFL record set by Earl Campbell in 1980 and equaled by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
On his 85-yard sprint, Johnson was brought down just after crossing the goal line by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was back on the LP Field where he starred in college for Tennessee State.
Rodgers-Cromartie and Johnson jawed at each other heatedly after the third-quarter touchdown, which gave Tennessee a 13-3 lead.
"We had a long conversation there," Johnson said. "He told me he caught me. I told him, 'I slowed down, dude.' "
Johnson is on pace for a 2,000-yard season, one more reason Tennessee looms as the NFL's most dangerous 5-6 team as it heads for this weekend's game at the Indianapolis Colts.
A victory against the undefeated Colts would get the Titans to .500 and rekindle their playoff hopes.
"You have to think that," Johnson said of still aiming for the postseason despite the 0-6 start. "That's the ultimate goal."
Said Young about the playoffs: "Everything is possible. Our confidence level is definitely high on that right now."
It was the first time the Cardinals have been defeated in six road contests this season, and it took the luster off a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling.
"Obviously this was a tough loss for us," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said, likening the defeat to the one that ended Arizona's 2008 season.
"It's probably as close of a bad feeling as losing the Super Bowl," Whisenhunt said. "When you're that close, when you're six seconds from winning it, it makes it even tougher."
Proving the doubters wrong
The irony was that Young's one notable mistake - letting the first-half clock run out and wasting a field goal opportunity - was what put the Titans in a touchdown-or-nothing corner.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher tried to take the blame, saying, "That's on me," because he tried for one too many plays.
"I had hoped we could take a shot at the end zone and throw it away," Fisher said. "That's asking a quarterback to do too much."
But, given the outcome, Fisher said, "I think we all made up for the snafu at the end of the first half."
Said Young, simply, "Everybody's not perfect."
But the game was a perfect reminder of that Rose Bowl that cemented Young's image as a clutch player.
Titans fullback Ahmard Hall, another teammate of Young's at Texas, said that Bowl Championship Series title game also was on the mind of at least one of the Cardinals, because Arizona center Lyle Sendlein also was a Longhorn.
"He told me after the game he knew Vince was going to do it," Hall said.
That faith in Young hasn't been typical, Hall said.
"They want to doubt him," Hall said. "He just continues to be doubted, but he continues to win and prove them wrong."