Picking a quarterback in the first round is always a risky business. For every Troy Aikman, there's a Jeff George. For every Peyton Manning, there's an Akili Smith. Carson Palmer, Ryan Leaf.
That's probably why when Vince Young and Alex Smith began to show signs of less-than-brilliance, so many teams were ready to write them off. Young and Smith, the 3rd overall pick in the 2006 Draft, and the 1st pick in the 2005 draft respectively definitely did not enter the NFL reminding people of Marino and Montana. However, they did earn something that most athletes never get a chance to do: redeem themselves somewhat.
In Catholicism, redemption means to atone so that you may be freed of sin. And Smith and Young both did sin. In football, they committed the sin of failing to live up to expectations. And coming into the league, both Smith and Young had huge expectations.
Alex Young went 21-1 as a quarterback for the Utah Utes. He finished fourth in the Heisman voting his senior year, amazing considering he played in the lightly regarded Mountain West Conference. Under Urban Meyer, Smith's Utes beat Pittsburg in the Fiesta Bowl, the first BCS Bowl game to have a non-BCS team in it. And he won.
However, to be blunt, Alex Smith did not enter the NFL with the look of a future number one pick. Completing barely 50 percent of his passes in his first year, and throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown pass, he looked lost and scared in the pocket. Over the next year, Smith shows glimpses of talent, but always regressed soon afterward. It didn't help that Smith had 3 different offensive coordinators in his first 3 seasons. That said, Smith threw 16 interceptions his 2nd year and was sacked 35 times. Fans grew impatient with Smith's slow growth and across the web begin a variety of Alex Smith "stinks" web sites and in the media, the "bust" label began to be whispered.
Then the roof fell in. Sacked early in his 3rd season, Smith injured his throwing shoulder. Rushed back into the lineup by coach Mike Nolan, Smith played truly horribly. Smith complained his shoulder wasn't right; Nolan didn't believe him and called him out to the papers. Eventually, however, it was discovered by doctors that Smith's shoulder injury was more server than previously thought, and he was placed on IR and had surgery on the shoulder. The next year, 2008, with yet another offensive coordinator, this time Mike Martz—his 4th in 4 years—Smith was demoted to second-string quarterback, behind journeyman J.T. Sullivan. Smith was thought to be a bad fit for Martz's wide-open attack, and Martz knew Sullivan from their time in Detroit. Then things got even worse.
Before the season, Smith's shoulder required a second surgery, which would cause him to miss the entire 2008 season and would lead to Smith be called a full-fledged bust. After the season, with the threat of being cut, Smith was forced to renegotiate his contract, reducing his pay for the final two seasons from 25 million to 8.
Starting the 2009 season as both a second-string quarterback and a bust waiting to be cut, Smith looked renewed, and was inserted into the starting lineup in the 7th game. And all of a sudden, the bust began to play like the first round pick he was supposed to be. When asked why Smith seemed different this year than from all others, Coach Singletary had this to say:
"Alex is a totally different guy today than he was even six months ago. I think his mindset is clear. The thing what spoke volumes to me about him was in the offseason he had a chance to move on and go to another team and make more money. But he decided to stay because he felt that he wanted to be a part of what was here. He wanted to finish what he started.''
In just 8 games, Smith has 15 TD passes, or just one short of his career high. He is throwing for a 61% completion rating and has career highs in almost every passing category. He is 7th in the league with a TD% of 5.4 Against the Cardinals, Smith was credited with causing three offsides using a excellent hard count, and keeping the Cardinal rushers on their heels all game. While not a polished Drew Brees QB just yet—he throws too many interceptions still—Smith has shown the signs of not only not being a weak point in his team's offense, but actually being an asset. He has shown signs on multiple occasions of placing the Niners on his shoulders and producing when the team needed him too. After a long, strange trip, Alex Smith finally is becoming the quarterback he was drafted to be.
For Vince Young, the story was even more roller coasterish. After the unbelievable BCS Championship game, Young had an even more fairy tale-like rookie season. Playing in a controlled offense, Young managed the Titans to an 8-5 record as a starting quarterback and himself to a Pro Bowl nomination. His second season was a combination of even more good and some bad, though improved throughout the season, markedly improving his completion rating. Young however threw 17 interceptions to just 9 TDs.
Then, like Smith, the roof caved in.
After a poor performance in the first game of the 2008 season, Young was booed and benched. Distraught beyond reason, Young, after the game, went missing. Young's therapist said that Young was with a gun and was contemplating suicide.
Given time to straighten things out in his head, Young was "relieved of starting duties." Benched in favor of Kerry Collins for the rest of 2008 season, Young essentially became the forgotten man during the Titans exceptional 2008 season. To start the 2009 season, Titans coach Jeff Fisher told the media that Young was the second-string QB and would have to "earn his job back." Once a Pro Bowler and one of the NFL's stars of the future, Young was now an afterthought, and a heavily doubted one at that.
However, as brilliant as Collins was in 2008, he was equally awful in 2009, leading the Titans—once popular Super Bowl picks—to a 0-6 record. Eventually, and by request of the Titans owner, Vince Young was brought back to start for the Titans. And he has responded. Young is not only putting up the best numbers of his career, but is also by leading the Titans as a veteran quarterback, to a 6-1 record. Young's interceptions are way down and his yards per attempt are way up—as is his quarterback rating, 20 points higher than his previous high.
But more to the point, and like Smith, Young appears for the first time, to be a leader. Again, not to be confused with Tom Brady, Young, again like Smith, seems to have grown the ability to be able to take the team on his shoulders. Like Smith, they are fulfilling the promise they had when their teams selected them so high.
Redemption is a rare thing in sports. Not many players, taken with so much expectation by a franchise, and who fall so flat in the face of those expectations, have a chance to redeem themselves. Ask Tim Couch. Couch, who had a similar career path to Smith and Young, who succeeded marvelously in college, who was taken high in the draft, who showed early promise but had the deck stacked too much against him—including a parade of offensive coordinators and schemes and a sieve-like offensive line—and ultimately failed. Couch, despite being the Cleveland Browns all-time leader in completion percentage, despite a Pro Bowl birth and despite leading a talent-deprived expansion franchise to a playoff berth, Couch was released. He was a bust.
Which is why we should note Smith and Young's redemption. Because it so rarely ever happens. Unlike baseball, where a struggling young player can be sent to the minors to work his problems out, football is a do-or-die sport, where if you don't succeed, you're a bust. Football doesn't want to hear it—win or go home.
So congratulations are due to Alex Smith and Vince Young. Both of them came into the league with huge expectations. Both got knocked down. And both got back up and are succeeding. And that's something that should be commended.