Quarterback play often separates contenders from pretenders during the postseason.
Can a team win a championship without an established star quarterback consistently leading the way? The answer to that question is yes. Quarterbacks like Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer can flash their Super Bowl rings as proof.
As the postseason begins in 2007, with the possible exception of the New York Giants and the inconsistent Eli Manning, no team in the playoff field has more questions about its quarterback situation than the Tennessee Titans.
First off, there is still some question as to whether Vince Young will be healthy enough to start, or whether the Titans will go with experienced backup Kerry Collins.
Should Young get the nod and make his first career postseason start, those questions will continue unless Young quiets the critics by helping the Titans upset the San Diego Chargers Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
It wouldn’t be the first time Young has answered his critics with an impressive victory. He accomplished that at the University of Texas, leading the Longhorns past Southern California for the national championship in 2005.
But the NFL playoffs, even the wild-card round, is a much bigger stage for Young to try and prove himself.
“To me, I can’t really look at it as because it’s the playoffs. … I’ve just got to get myself prepared to play the game and let the game come to me,” Young said. “I don’t really feel like it’s going to be different. I know it’s going to be more up-tempo, but I just have to go out there and play my game. That’s basically it.”
That is good, but the stakes will still be raised exponentially, says former Titans quarterback Neil O’Donnell, whose first playoff start also came as a second-year quarterback with Pittsburgh.
“This is his job,” O’Donnell said. “This is why Vince Young is being paid a lot of money. And there is the added pressure of being Vince Young and being a first-round pick.
“There’s added pressure also because it’s do or die. If you don’t win, you’re packing up your locker and heading into the offseason.”
If Young proves himself Sunday, he will have to do so missing two of his leading receivers — Roydell Williams and Bo Scaife, who are both out with injuries.
And it will probably take more than he has shown in 15 regular season games this season. While Young has completed 238 of 382 passes (62.3 percent), he has thrown for just 2,546 yards. To make matters worse, he has just nine touchdown passes to 17 interceptions.
In fact, the nine touchdown passes the Titans have as a team is the lowest total for a playoff team in a 16-game season ever.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow won’t hide from the fact that the numbers are not what he had hoped for. Still, he paints Young as a competitor and a leader, who is working to improve.
“It’s obviously not a very good number, but I keep saying that people are figuring out how to play Vince Young, and it’s up to us to try to stay ahead of the game and continue to try to make adjustments so that we can help him get to where he’s got to go,” Chow said.
Added Young, “Obviously, I’m doing something right, and I want to continue to take my game to another level.”
The Titans are hopeful that Young’s playmaking abilities and knack for big plays in big games can somehow supercede his mistakes and learning curve and help him reach that level beginning this week.
“He’s unquestionably the leader. People look up to him. People respond to him. He knows that. He understands all that, and it’s up to him to make it happen,” Chow said.
Running back LenDale White, who was on the losing end of that Rose Bowl comeback from Young, is optimistic his quarterback can overcome whatever hurdles might come his way against the Chargers.
“He’s a game-changer. That’s what he is,” White said. “If he does it with his arms or does it with his legs, he has the ability to take over a game in an instant. He’s a quarterback, so you know he’s going to touch the ball every play, and the defense has to account for him. He can throw a couple of picks, but sooner or later, Vince is going to get a good play in and his confidence is right back.”
Confidence early can be key, especially for a young quarterback, says O’Donnell.
“If I were Vince, I would look at my first five to seven passes and make sure I could get four to five completions, even if I had to use my checkdowns just to get into a rhythm,” O’Donnell said. “The thing I have seen with Vince when he struggles is that he has a tendency to stay on one receiver too long. If he can get into a rhythm, it’ll give him some confidence. … I think he struggles when he doesn’t get completions early.”
The Titans profess confidence in Young despite his numbers, and largely for where they are now with him at the helm.
“We have a young rising star at the position that has been the starter for all but one game, and has won nine games of our 10 and has gotten us in the playoffs,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
Perhaps Chow best summed up the Titans’ feelings about Young, whom they chose over Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler in the 2006 draft with the third overall pick.
“A couple of years ago when I first got in this league, there were a bunch of young hotshot quarterbacks,” Chow said. “This is the only guy still playing [in] the playoffs. That should tell you something.”