Years removed from his glory days in the NCAA and NFL, Vince Young faces an uphill battle trying to resurrect his pro football career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The CFL club took a flyer on Young on Thursday, signing the former Texas Longhorns star to a two-year deal (one year plus an option). The 33-year-old spent eight years in the NFL but last played in a regular-season game in 2011 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I wouldn’t say (this is) a comeback, I’d just say an opportunity,” Young said at a news conference in Regina. “I always wanted to play football again but didn’t know how it was going to happen.
“God always works in mysterious ways.”
The six-foot-five, 232-pound Young was 30-2 at Texas and in 2005 led the school to an NCAA title. He went in the first round, third overall, of the 2006 NFL draft to the Tennessee Titans and was the league’s top rookie and a Pro Bowl selection that season.
Young, a 2005 Heisman Trophy finalist, started 50-of-60 career NFL games and in ‘09 was its comeback player and earned his second Pro Bowl nomination. But the Houston native has been out of football since 2014 when he retired after being released by the Cleveland Browns.
Young said he’s remained active in retirement, playing flag football, breaking down game film with Longhorns quarterbacks and coaching his son’s youth squad. Young added he started his off-season conditioning program last month.
However, his biggest challenge isn’t simply chipping away the rust. It’s trying to do so while venturing into a completely different game.
Canadian football is not only played on a longer, wider field but also features one less down and one more player on the field. And while in the NFL only one offensive player can be moving when the ball is snapped, unlimited motion is allowed in the CFL, sometimes creating organized chaos.
Canadian football is predominately an aerial game requiring pinpoint accuracy from the quarterback. Every CFL starter last year completed at least 65 per cent of his passes and overall league quarterbacks completed 68.3 per cent of the roughly 5,900 passes thrown.
At Texas, Young was a 61.8 per cent passer but sported a 57.9 per cent mark over his NFL career. He threw more interceptions (51) than touchdowns (46) despite posting a 30-17 record as a starter.
“It’s certainly a different game,” said Chris Jones, Saskatchewan’s head coach/GM. “It’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment but again we’ve got mini-camp and (training) camp and I’m fully confident that he can make that adjustment.”
Young was a mobile quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 1,459 yards (5.2-yard average) although he lost 12 of 40 fumbles. And while Edmonton’s Mike Reilly was the CFL’s top-rushing quarterback last year with 406 yards (four-yard average), he also led the league in passing (5,554 yards) and owned a gaudy 70.8 per cent completion average.
Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell, the CFL’s outstanding player last year, completed 68 per cent of his passes and had four times as many TD passes (32) than interceptions (eight).
Few quarterbacks have succeeded coming to Canada after starting their pro career in the NFL. Doug Flutie was the exception, starring in the CFL with B.C., Calgary and Toronto (1990-97) following stints with Chicago (1986-87) and New England (1987-89).
Flutie was the CFL’s outstanding player six times and won three Grey Cups. He returned to the NFL with Buffalo (1998-2000), San Diego (2001-04) and the Patriots (2005) before retiring.
Should Young require inspiration, he need look no further than Kerry Joseph, who came north in 2003 after being released by the Seattle Seahawks following four seasons as a safety. In the CFL, Joseph played quarterback with Ottawa (2003-05), Saskatchewan (2006-07), Toronto (2008-09), Edmonton (2010-13) and the Riders (2014), winning the league’s outstanding player honour in ‘07 before leading the Riders to a Grey Cup title.
Despite his accomplishments, Young was emphatic he’s not taking the Canadian league or its players for granted.
“It’s football and when you put on that helmet you can get your head knocked off out there,” he said. “I always respect the game … because you know what players go through behind the scenes.
“We’re human and we live life as well so I respect each and every last guy who plays this game.”
Saskatchewan has been looking for a starter since trading veteran Darian Durant’s rights to the Montreal Alouettes in January. However, Young will compete with veteran Kevin Glenn, 37, Canadian Brandon Bridge and Americans G.J. Kinne, Jake Waters and Bryan Bennett, all of whom have time invested into the Canadian game.
“Vince knows what’s in front of him,” said Jones. “We’ve got some good quarterbacks and they’re all going to be in competition for our No. 1 job.
“If you look at Vince’s record, that’s pretty good regardless of what league you play in. He certainly can make all the throws … but I think it’s much more than just his physical tools. He brings a lot of intangibles that winners bring.”
Young, for one, isn’t the least bit daunted by the task before him.
“I’ve got to put in the work and get in the film room and transfer the film work and mental stuff to the football field,” he said. “It’s not my first rodeo … I’ve played this game, I know football.
“It takes some time but at the same time I love to learn from my mistakes. I’m here to compete. The main thing is I want to tell my teammates that it’s not all about Vince. I don’t want them to think I’m coming here big-headed … it’s all about the team, it’s all about the city and whatever we can do to win.”
Young also said he’s not using the CFL as a springboard back to the NFL.
“My focus is being the best teammate I can be, the best guy in the community here,” he said. “I’m thinking about trying to win games and trying to win a Grey Cup.”