Maybe it really was meant to be.
It was going to take more than just some hokey television coincidence for Vince Young to win the Green Bay Packers’ backup quarterback job, of course. But all Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson really wanted to see from Young was that he could pick up the slivers of the Packers offense he was being taught, and a flash or two of the player Young has been at times throughout his NFL career.
On Friday night, the Packers general manager (watching from the sideline) and head coach (who put Young in to start the second half) saw both, and that’s why the team opted to release incumbent No. 2 quarterback Graham Harrell on Saturday afternoon in favor of Young, who outplayed Harrell in the Packers’ 17-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
ESPN.com was first to report that Harrell had been released, and an NFL source confirmed the move shortly thereafter. Harrell spent two seasons as the Packers’ No. 3 quarterback on the practice squad – he was elevated to the 53-man roster late in the 2010 season after Aaron Rodgers’ second concussion – before becoming Rodgers’ primary backup last season following the free-agent departure of Matt Flynn.
After the Packers signed Young on Aug. 5, Thompson was reminded of his remarks about him in advance of the 2006 NFL Draft, after Young led the University of Texas to the national championship with a tour de force performance in the Rose Bowl. At the time, Thompson wouldn’t rule out the possibility of drafting Young, even though he’d picked Rodgers in the first round the previous year.
"The Portland TrailBlazers, once upon a time, decided that they had to take a big guy, and they were picking No. 2. And they took Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan," Thompson said at the time. "How does history judge you with a pick like that? So I don't think you can tie yourself to a position when it comes to the draft, especially picking as high as we are."
Thompson was referring to the TrailBlazers’ fateful decision to pass on arguably the greatest player in NBA history in the 1984 Draft because they needed a big man, not a guard/forward. After Young’s on-campus workout that March, Thompson said, “If you have a chance to get Michael Jordan, you get Michael Jordan.”
When those quotes were read to him on Aug. 6, Thompson chuckled and said, “I hope I didn't jinx him by doing that.” But when asked what kind of player he might be getting in the now 30-year-old Young, Thompson confessed that he didn’t know and revealed an odd omen.
“That's the mystery of it, sort of the intrigue,” he said. “(Packers pro personnel director) Eliot Wolf and (senior personnel executive) Alonzo Highsmith were telling me the night before he was scheduled to come in, they were flipping around the television and it was one of the stations that does replays. And they saw the national championship game and he was just a monster in that game. They saw it as a sign... from ... somewhere..."
The sign on Friday night was that Young simply played better than Harrell did.
Against the Seahawks, Harrell completed just 6 of 13 passes for 49 yards (56.2 rating) while playing behind the No. 1 offensive line after Rodgers called it a night after one series of action. Harrell also played with starting tight end Jermichael Finley, wide receiver James Jones and running back Eddie Lacy at his disposal against the Seahawks’ No. 1 defense.
Young played with the No. 2 offensive line to open the second half and had D.J. Williams and a mix of young receivers with him as he completed 6 of 7 passes for 41 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown to fullback Jonathan Amosa, for a passer rating of 130.7. Young also runs of 21 and 18 yards. His second series was derailed when he couldn’t handle an errant snap from center Patrick Lewis.
“Vince Young (and) the dimension of running, that’s something that we really wanted to see,” McCarthy said after the game. “I think you’re just seeing Vince get more and more comfortable with what’s asked of him, particularly for as much man-to-man we were seeing tonight, very instinctive with big plays. I think he did very well on his first drive. It was unfortunate, the high snap there on second down on the second drive.
“I think Vince is definitely one of the players who took advantage of his opportunities tonight.”
It’s become quite evident that No. 3 quarterback B.J. Coleman, who struggled again Friday night (2 of 7, 8 yards, 39.6 rating) needs another year on the practice squad if he’s ever going to develop into a viable backup. McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo have each gushed about his long-term potential, but in the short term, he’s not a realistic option.
The move doesn’t absolutely guarantee Young the No. 2 job, as the Packers could still opt for another quarterback cut by another team as roster reductions loom. Teams must be down to 75 players by Tuesday at 3 p.m. and to 53 players by next Saturday at 5 p.m.
For now, though, Young is the guy, and he figures to see more extended playing time in the preseason finale at Kansas City on Thursday night. The reason is simple: It appears Young could get even better in the Packers’ offense as he learns more of the playbook and adapts to the fundamentals McCarthy, McAdoo and offensive coordinator Tom Clements require, while it appears Harrell is what he is and may very well be at his ceiling, even if he knows the offense inside and out.
“You know, each week, we try to give him a little bit more offensively of what we do,” McAdoo said of Young at midweek. “There’s a lot of what we do that he’s done in the past and we try to match, to give him some comfort and then try to push him a little bit. And he’s responded.”
It was clear from the moment the Packers signed Young on Aug. 5 that McCarthy was excited about Young’s 50 NFL regular-season starts of experience – and his 31-19 record in those games – and that he was willing to be patient with Young as he tried to learn the playbook. While Young looked utterly out of sorts in his first three practices and did not play well against Arizona in the preseason opener on Aug. 9, he improved in the Packers’ Aug. 17 victory at St. Louis and looked more at ease in the offense Friday night.
Truth be told, the Packers had decided early in camp that they wanted to see if they could do better than Harrell behind Rodgers. They gave Coleman equal reps with Harrell during the first week, and when Coleman didn’t show the progress they’d hoped, the team signed Young, whom they’d been keeping tabs on since March.
Now, it’s up to him to prove their decision was the right one.
“That’s what it’s all about. As a quarterback, you want to lead your guys out there. You want to convert on third downs, you want to make first downs and know you’re going to make the right throws and call the right plays,” Young said after the game Friday night. “I really feel like as a second- and third-team unit, I think we took a step forward, but we still have a lot to do to work. And I really feel like the guys did some good things tonight of making some plays.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.