Titans coaches talk openly about what Young still needs to learn: how to better read defenses, see the field and find open receivers—how, in other words, to be a multidimensional quarterback and not a gimmick who can only run the ball, which remains his best-developed skill and security blanket. That can't be easy to hear. Moreover, as Peter Richmond noted in an article in Sunday's New York Times Play magazine, Young has had to learn a new offensive system this year under coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who favors more traditional drop-back quarterbacks. "I want him to play the position like other quarterbacks did last year," Heimerdinger said, meaning that Young should run only as a last resort. Early returns are not good: Young's opening-day performance—a game Tennessee won, 17-10, over Jacksonville—ranks him 35th out of 36 quarterbacks in the league, according to a comprehensive stat created by the Web site Football Outsiders. His replacement, 35-year-old Kerry Collins, stands sixth.
Injury is another common source of distress for NFL players. For some players, it can be a ticket out of the league. Young doesn't face that, but his sprained medial collateral ligament is the worst injury of his career. David McDuff, a psychiatrist for the Baltimore Ravens, says injuries can leave players feeling isolated, guilty, and fearful. A lack of experience with being hurt only makes it worse. "It can make your self-confidence plummet," McDuff says. "And I mean fast. Within six hours of an injury."
Then add this to a player's burden: responsibility to a host of other people. Having a mother who discloses her son's emotional state to reporters can't be helpful. Endorsing a debit card and an energy drink, as Young has, might pay well, but the companies count on you to live up to the deal. In our sports-obsessed culture, partying shirtless with a group of friends, as Young did this summer to the delight of celebrity and sports blogs, can require a public apology.
So, Young faced a cocktail of stressers. McDuff says immediate intervention by team officials, health professionals, and trusted family and friends can quell an athlete crisis. But intense publicity can make it seem as if the triggering event "happened hundreds of thousands of times, not once, in the psyche of the public." Young's mental health, dedication, and competence have been questioned for two years now, never more than in the last two weeks.
How the Titans are handling Vince Young's personal issues hasn't been made public. According to a staff directory, the Titans don't have a psychologist on the payroll. But they do contract with a therapist, who met with Young during last week's events. (The Denver Broncos, with whom I embedded as a place-kicker, employ a full-time psychologist who has an office near the locker room, attends practices, and encourages players to talk.) Young didn't attend quarterback meetings last week or travel with the team to Cincinnati on Sunday (a 24-7 victory). And yesterday, Fisher announced that Young had been demoted in favor of Collins, a traditional drop-back quarterback, regardless of when his knee recovers. It would certainly be understandable if Young felt abandoned by his team.
As a culture, football isn't touchy-feely. "Because it's such a testosterone-driven sport, it's very hard to express any weakness at any time to anyone," player agent Peter Schaffer says. "It's like the remedy creates more problems than the actual problem." Or, to put it another way, a player who owns up to his problems might think he'll be perceived as less than tough, threatening his status in the locker room. And it's not as if sportswriters are sympathetic after the fact. In the Tennessean, columnist David Climer advises Young to "get with the program." In the New York Times, columnist William Rhoden links Young's problems to those faced by older African-American quarterbacks. "Young doesn't need a psychologist," Rhoden writes. "He needs a history lesson."
All might not be lost for Vince Young. At 25, he's still got plenty of time to become a great quarterback. The Titans have invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in him. And plenty of other NFL players have suffered publicly before finding the emotional maturity to survive in the league. (Exhibit A: the Miami Dolphins' worldly and thoughtful running back Ricky Williams.) But there also are plenty of other players who have decided that the sport isn't for them. Some are comparatively anonymous, like Quinn Pitcock and Ed Cunningham. Others are better known thanks to stellar, if short, careers, from the legendary Jim Brown to the superb 1990s running back Robert Smith.
Quitting outright is a dramatic endpoint, to be sure. But it shouldn't be an illogical one. Maybe Vince Young just isn't cut out to play in the NFL. "I'm really much more amazed by the people who continue to grind it out," says Joel Goldberg, who was a psychologist for the New York Giants and other NFL teams for more than two decades. "Honestly, the brighter ones quit."