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THE BUZZWORD around Nashville lately is footwork, and it's used to tout quarterback Vince Young's chief improvement under offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. After Young threw just nine touchdown passes and 17 picks in 2007, coach Jeff Fisher brought in Heimerdinger to replace Norm Chow, who never meshed with Young. Chow tried to force him to stay in the pocket and go for short gains rather than tailor schemes to Young's skills, which include airing it out and creating on the run.
This is Heimerdinger's second stint as the Titans' coordinator. He had the job from 2000 to '04, and with his guidance Steve McNair, another gifted rusher with a strong arm, was the '03 league MVP. Heimerdinger is known for riding quarterbacks to get the best out of them while also playing to their strengths, and Young has embraced the approach. Despite leaving Nashville in the off-season to take classes at Texas—fulfilling a promise to his mother to get his degree—Young flew back on Wednesday nights to hit the field with Heimerdinger on Thursdays and Fridays, honing his, yes, footwork before heading to the video room to dissect plays.
The focus on the feet should give Young a better feel for how and when to use his big arm. "We always say, Let your feet talk to you," says Heimerdinger. "We did a lot of pass-rush drills so he could feel the pocket collapsing on him while remaining composed. When his feet move too much, he knows to pull the ball down and run."
In his first two seasons Young tended to take one look downfield and then tuck and run if no one was open. In contrast, during the preseason he was standing firm and scanning his options more. "He learned how to be a quarterback this off-season," says 15th-year center Kevin Mawae, "instead of just being an athlete."
It'll help Young's development that Tennessee has added free-agent Alge Crumpler, 30, who spent the last seven seasons with the Falcons. The four-time Pro Bowl tight end is a reliable target who knows how to get open, qualities the Titans need desperately in the red zone, where they ranked last in the league in touchdown efficiency (36.4%) last season. "Throw it in the zip code, and he'll catch it," says Heimerdinger, who also praises Crumpler's leadership in the locker room and his commitment to building an on-field rapport with Young.
Still, Young's not going to turn into Dan Marino overnight. That's where a solid running game comes in. Third-year back LenDale White gained 1,110 yards in 2007 and is poised to build on that. While acknowledging that he's well over his listed 235 pounds, White insists he's in shape. "I'll let you speculate as to the actual number," he says, "but I'm at my fighting weight." Fisher says that White improved his conditioning in the off-season, giving him more separation speed. Be assured, however, that White won't be trading in his nickname, Thunder, anytime soon.
And where there's Thunder, there's usually lightning. When White was at USC, Reggie Bush filled that role; now it looks to be Chris Johnson, the first-round pick from East Carolina, who was the fifth back taken in the draft. The 5'11", 200-pound Johnson led the NCAA with 2,960 all-purpose yards, and he blew away scouts at the combine last February by running the 40 in 4.24. "He's just a little bit faster than most guys," says Fisher with a grin. Mawae is more direct. "Blazing," he says of Johnson's speed. "You don't realize how fast 4.24 is until you see it on the field." The Rams got an eyeful in the first preseason game, when Johnson took a handoff from backup quarterback Kerry Collins and rocketed virtually untouched for a 66-yard touchdown.
Knowing that he has more weapons at his disposal can only speed Young's development as an all-around quarterback. Add a coordinator who can maximize his talents, a calmer head and better foot ... well, you know, and he should lead the Titans to the postseason dance again this year.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JEFF FISHER (115--99 in NFL), 15th season with Titans