The man behind VY's revival… it's not who you think

Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 11:41pm
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Quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson is flanked by his pupils, Vince Young, left, and Kerry Collins. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Vince Young’s revival has been on full display for several weeks now.

Those who have seen him play since regaining the starting quarterback role for the Tennessee Titans can’t help but notice a more confident, accurate and better prepared player than the one who held the position from 2006 through the season opener last year.

Certainly, Young’s renewed dedication to being a successful NFL quarterback is a vital part of the equation.

Likewise, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and Young have clicked in terms of creating and executing, respectively, game plans that put Young and the Tennessee offense in the best possible position to succeed.

Heck, even owner Bud Adams gave Young a boost when he publicly said he thought the young quarterback should be starting.

But there is another somewhat unsung hero in the rejuvenation of Young’s career, whose role throughout the whole comeback process, has been a major one in terms of getting the 2006 first-round pick’s career back on track.

Meet Titans quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, who, as Young’s position coach throughout his entire tenure in Tennessee, has played a huge part behind the scenes in helping him secure a better grasp on what it takes to truly be an NFL quarterback.

“Coach Johnson was in my corner a whole lot, just motivating me and keeping me focused a lot and keeping me informed of what was going on,” Young said.

Message gets through

When Young was banished to the bench after the unusual set of circumstances that unfolded during, and following, the opening game against Jacksonville, there was never much of a way to gauge how much he was working, listening or watching as Kerry Collins took over the starting quarterback job.

Sure, there were many who tried to read Young’s body language and wondered aloud if the message was getting through. But judging how Young has improved in his second go-around as the starting quarterback, it is clear that someone or something got through to him.

In many ways, that someone was Johnson.

Consider that Heimerdinger’s role each week is to get the game plan ready, see that it’s executed properly and spend the bulk of his time with the starting quarterback. And backups mostly make mental notes of the proceedings, while position coaches are responsible for having them ready to play when their turn comes.

“I’m always in both their ears, and asking questions all the time, and definitely when you saw Kerry playing a lot, it was mostly Heimerdinger and him, and I was like, ‘Let me get over here in Coach Johnson’s ear,' because he definitely knows what Heimerdinger is telling Kerry,” Young said. “That’s pretty much what I was doing — listening to him.”

Young allowed Johnson’s message to soak in on a number of levels.

“The No. 1 thing I tried to do with Vince was to get him back — to get him back emotionally and get him back into the rhythm of the game,” Johnson said. “What I’ve noticed with a lot of quarterbacks, [is] they take care of the mental battle and they take of the mechanics.

[But with Vince those] aren’t gonna happen until emotionally he had gotten himself back,” he added. “So I think if I did anything, I tried to be there and give him confidence and let him know that I had a lot of confidence in him at the time, and that when he came back, he would get things done.”

A level of care

Johnson always continued to work with Young on his footwork and with his study of the game. But blended in with the chalk talk was a trust and belief that developed between the teacher and pupil.

“There were a lot of hours and hours. As much as anything, we talked X’s and O’s, and we talked mechanics,” Johnson said. “But more than anything, he knows that I was there for him, and obviously, it went past the coaching part.

“I know [Vince is] right there, and what he’s telling me, he’s telling me because he really cares. That was important,” Johnson continued. “The rest of it will come when he knows that you care about him.”

Young agrees, saying that he knew even when he was going through the trying times of losing the starting job that Johnson’s belief in him didn’t waver.

“When you’ve got a coach that’s in your corner, that means a lot,” Young said.

While Heimerdinger was busy in that time making sure Collins knew what he wanted as the starter, Johnson, as the position coach, helped to keep Young 'in the loop,' in case he was called upon.

“Craig has done a great job with him.” said Coach Jeff Fisher. “He’s worked hard with him. Mike and Craig are always on the same page, and Vince and Craig have a great relationship, and he spends the extra time with him to get him prepared.”

And Johnson did it in a way Young could relate.

With Johnson also having been Steve McNair’s quarterbacks coach with the Titans, he brought the added perspective of being able to impart a “What would Steve do” approach to Young’s learning curve.

“We put in a lot of hours together, a lot of chemistry talking and relating a lot of stuff to Steve and what was going on when he went through the same situation and things like that,” Young said. “And helping me understand Coach Heimerdinger with the play calling and some of the things he does and why he does this and that, and just helping me become a quarterback behind the scenes.”

Heimerdinger himself appreciates how much more prepared VY 2.0 is now that he has been reinstalled as the starter.

“Craig does a great job of getting those guys ready,” Heimerdinger said. “Craig does a great job preparing them and does a good job out here [at practice] of watching his feet and his ball placement, because I’m watching everybody else and seeing where they’re supposed to be. The preparation that Vince has had has been really good by Craig.”

Heimerdinger also believes Young has become a better student of the game as well, doing the extra work on film that quarterbacks must do dissect NFL defenses.

“The quarterback position is a different position. You’ve got to put in extra time, you’ve got to study extra film and you either take it home or spend it here,” he said. “Every player does it differently, but a quarterback has got to spend the extra time, and Vince is doing that.”

Reasons for the revival

Johnson credits two overriding factors in the reasons for Young’s revival.

The first is that Young did use his time out wisely for when he got another chance.

“I think he really did learn. And he, right now, is admitting that it helped him to come back and watch Kerry,” Johnson said. “He actually got a chance to sit back and watch a really good veteran quarterback do it and kind of see all the things that happen, to see him in the game, plus what happens with the fans. They love him one second and don’t love him so much the next. I think that helped him as far as maturity.”

The second factor, according to Johnson, is much more personal. He said Young has used the sting of the death of his mentor, McNair, as a 'positive' when applying it to his professional career.

“The other thing that really affected him was Steve’s death. I think he sees himself taking Steve’s place, so to speak, trying to be that next quarterback,” Johnson said. “And it took a lot of the focus off him and put it on others, which I think in the big picture was good for him.

“Plus, he has said there was a lot of ‘junk’ in his life, and he said, ‘I’ve calmed the junk down.’ So now, when he’s here, his mind is focused and everything is good, and that’s tremendous.”

Young has already been helping fill the void left by McNair by mentoring his sons, Tyler and Trenton. But he also has picked up that slack with his on-field play as well.

“I feel like I’ve always been dedicated to the game,” Young said. “It’s just [that] after he passed, it’s his family looking up to me, his boys looking up to me, and I feel like it was, ‘OK, let me fill in in Pop’s shoes’ and take the things that he was doing and things like that. So that’s pretty much where that came from.”

And as Young does the things necessary to keep improving as a quarterback, no one takes more pride in that than Johnson.

“What you have to do, and I think that’s what most quarterback coaches would be proudest of, is that most people want to look at the starter, but when that second-string quarterback comes in, that he is ready to go,” Johnson said. “Because a lot of that is on you, and you have to make sure he gets the mental reps and is ready to go and has his focus where it needs to be.

“And obviously, he has made tremendous strides in that area, as with most young quarterbacks, but it’s hard to be watching and not playing. But he has improved by leaps and bounds in that area, and that has carried over to the field.”