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THE PARTY started
in a crowded parking lot just north of Reliant Stadium around 10:30 on Sunday
morning. As Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young prepared for his
first NFL game in his hometown, about 60 of his friends and relatives gathered
for the most eagerly awaited tailgate party in the short history of the Houston
Texans. Never mind that they weren't there to cheer for the home team. They
clustered under billowy canopies that shielded them from the light rain and ate
barbecued chicken and grilled sausage while recalling memories of the player
who has become one of the city's most beloved athletes.
At the time it sounded like nothing more than the boasting of a proud mother, but by the end of Tennessee's 26--20 overtime victory over the Texans, Felicia proved to be prophetic. Her son didn't merely justify his status as a favorite son--he showed that he is one of the game's brightest young stars. His occasionally breathtaking performance on Sunday demonstrated why he was the third pick and the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft last April ... and was also a painful reminder to fans of the hometown Texans that he could have been playing for them this season (box, page 50).
The day's signature play was Young's 39-yard touchdown dash through the middle of Houston's defense on the first possession of overtime, a third-and-14 scramble that brought the game to a stunning end. But that was just the last of Young's heroics. Late in the fourth quarter he engineered a 15-play, 88-yard drive that gave Tennessee a 20--17 lead, connecting on four of five passes and scrambling for a first down on third-and-four from the Texans' eight. In a game that was at times ugly to watch--that's what can happen when teams that were a combined 9--15 face off--Young rushed for 86 yards and passed for 218 more while completing 19 of 29 passes with one interception.
In what is becoming a weekly occurrence, Young looked nothing like the first-year player who many thought would need two or three years to develop into an effective NFL quarterback. "I know there are people who still say I'm just a run threat who can't pass," Young says. "But I know I can sit back in the pocket and go through my progressions, and I also know I can make things happen when plays break down. I can do whatever it takes to win."
With Young under center, Tennessee, a team that in its two previous seasons was a combined 9--23 and dropped its first five games this year, has won six of its last eight. During the Titans' current four-game winning streak, Young has completed 59.5% of his passes and rushed for 282 yards. "He's a phenomenal athlete," says Texans rookie middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "Not only can he throw the ball, but he can cause so many problems with his feet. And he's making a lot of good decisions."
Young has also provided something that a Tennessee team light on talent sorely needed: some swagger. "When you have a dominant guy like Vince, his confidence becomes contagious," says rookie fullback Ahmard Hall. "Before you know it, everybody starts believing in what we can do as a team." Adds Young, "We are coming together. When we were losing earlier in the season, guys were pointing fingers. Now you see guys believing in each other. Now you see everybody in that locker room fighting together."
Hall has seen this kind of team transformation before, having played three seasons with Young at Texas. Before the highly touted quarterback arrived in Austin, Longhorns coach Mack Brown was known for his old-school approach, including his unwillingness to allow music in the locker room. By Young's junior season, he had persuaded Brown to install a stereo system in the locker room, and he even had his coach listening to 50 Cent.
At Texas, Young made a point of chatting with backup offensive linemen to keep them focused on their responsibilities in case a starter went down. He would remind them that they were as vital to the team as the players ahead of them on the depth chart. That's one of Young's more underrated talents: a gift for realizing what it takes to keep a team unified. It helped him go 30--2 as a starter in college and lead the Longhorns to last year's national championship, capped by an upset win over Southern Cal during which Young passed for 267 yards and ran for 200 more. But even that performance--a game in which he rallied the Longhorns from a 12-point deficit with touchdown drives of 69 and 56 yards in the final 6:42--didn't allay doubts about his ability to be successful in the NFL.
The naysayers pointed out that Young had no exposure to a pro-style offense in college. Texas featured him almost exclusively in a shotgun, read-option system that relied heavily on his improvisational skills. Titans coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Norm Chow didn't see that as a problem, because they weren't going to force Young into their system. Instead, Chow modified the offense to fit Young's talents.
To make Young more comfortable, the Titans tweaked their offense, installing the read-option and employing more shotgun formations. It also helps that Young, despite his unconventional three-quarter sidearm throwing motion, is a more accomplished passer than his skeptics realized. He also has an instinctive feel for the pass rush and a strong grasp of how opponents defend him. "In training camp, we wanted to expose him to our offense and add a little more each week," Fisher says. "But Vince picked things up so fast that we never felt we had to back off. There were no limitations."