NFL quarterback Vince Young has been in and out of the league since 2005, though since 2011, he’s mostly been out. Why that is true for this former Rookie Of The Year is hard to pin down. Some people think it’s because he’s just not a very good quarterback. Overall, Young has thrown slightly more interceptions than touchdowns. Yet, he seems to have something intangible, because the teams that he leads win. His record is 31–19.
Other people suggest the problem is his immaturity or possible mental illness. In 2008, while playing in Tennessee, Young’s coach Jeff Fisher told the authorities and the public that Young had gone missing and that the team’s therapist thought Young may be suicidal. When they located him, he was watching Monday Night Football at a friend’s home. To this day, Young denies that he was ever close to taking his own life.
The final factor in Young’s struggles could be that he is a black quarterback in a league that historically treats black quarterbacks with less respect than their white counterparts. One of the claims against Young while he was with Tennessee was that he faked injury, but there was no evidence of that he was lying except for the armchair diagnoses of announcers and fans watching Young from the booths and the comfort of their homes. The idea that Young gave up on his team has stuck to him as if it was applied with super glue.
And yet, we almost saw the triumphant return of Vince Young a couple of weeks ago. The day before Green Bay signed Young in early August, ESPN ran a story titled, “Will Vince Young ever play again?” But when Young got his chance back on the field, he took it. The August 23 preseason game showcased a struggling Graham Harrell, who was considered the backup quarterback to starter Aaron Rodgers up to that point. When Young took to the field, he “lit up Seattle’s backup defense (6-of-7, 41 yards) on two third-quarter drives.” The Washington Post described Young’s performance with this headline: “Vintage Vince Young makes bid for Packers backup quarterback job.”
The following day, Green Bay released Harrell, leaving Rodgers, Young, and B. J. Coleman as the team’s quarterbacks. NFL experts seemed confident that not only would Young make it onto the Packers’ roster but that he would move into the backup role permanently going into the regular season. But on August 30, Young’s mediocre, run-of-the-mill play against the Seahawks in another preseason game shook that confidence. The day after that, Green Bay cut Young. Once again, he was out of the league.
Some of the challenge for Young at this point could be money. Dan Solomon, with whom I’ve recently written about Young’s career, told me that day, “B. J. Coleman is a young player with practice squad eligibility still.” Each team, in addition to the 53 people they sign to their team, can have up to 8 players on a practice squad. They practice throughout the season with the team but the squad is ineligible to participate in game. “Vince, as a veteran, is more expensive [than Coleman],” Solomon explained, “and his baggage makes him unlikely to be signed elsewhere. So [The Packers] could theoretically bring Vince in mid-season if they had a need at the position.”
Then two days after cutting Young, the Packers cut Coleman, too. And out of nowhere, they signed veteran quarterback Seneca Wallace. The most common theory about this surprising move was that Green Bay wanted someone who knew the 49er offense to run it against the Packer defense in preparation for Green Bay’s first game of the season. But Rob Demovsky thinks that is too simplistic a reading: Wallace “spent only a week [with San Francisco] this summer, and as a vested NFL veteran, the Packers would be on the hook for his entire 2013 base salary (likely the league minimum) if he’s on the Week 1 roster.”
This is a complicated story at the same time that it’s an ordinary one. During the off-season, NFL teams whittle down their teams from 90 players to 53, making decisions that are restricted by the reality of a salary cap. Rosters are tight and there is often shuffling of players in different positions and last-minute cuts. Perhaps Young is actually hard to coach. Perhaps rumors of his lack of mental toughness are not exaggerated. Perhaps him being a black quarterback (which Wallace is, too) has not factored into his struggles as one would expect.
Yet, the ongoing saga of Vince Young highlights how vulnerable players in the NFL are to much beyond their control. Young can have a winning record in the league, show up and learn enough about a team’s offense in a couple of weeks to do multiple successful drives in a game, and can look on paper like he has secured a good job. And then be unemployed. Again. But even given these vaguaries, it’s hard to know why a mediocre quarterback Rex Grossman (who is now with Washington) still has a seat on a bench and Vince Young does not.