Commentary

What influenced the Packers

Did Kaepernick's audition for stardom against Green Bay spur QB signing?

Updated: August 22, 2013, 12:17 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

He was thrown on the NFL scrap pile last August by his third team in three years, and if he had stayed there with his phone not ringing with job offers, with dust continuing to collect on his name and his game, his shunning would've been understood. But only to a point, if only because it runs so counter to one of the taken-for-granted verities about the NFL: Teams are dying for quarterbacks, aren't they? It's a quarterback league.

So how is it, for more than a year, nobody wanted this particular 30-year-old with a 31-19 career record as a starter and two Pro Bowl appearances, a man who stands 6-foot-5, 235 pounds and escapes tacklers like a tailback and flicks the ball 60 yards, off his back foot, while on the run?

Doesn't that vault a man over whatever off-field asterisks he might have?

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesThe Packers have had several months to think about what Colin Kaepernick did to them.

As it turned out, the Green Bay Packers couldn't forget him. Not after the way they were torched in the playoffs last season by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran and passed like the second coming of, well, someone Packers general manager Ted Thompson had seen before -- someone who was still available the first week of August this year.

That was after the Packers defensive coaches had already spent part of their offseason humbly traveling off to Texas A&M to learn how to better shut down the 49ers' attack that had beaten them with such devastating effect. And after the Packers' other two backup QBs, Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, were looking lackluster in organized team activities and training camp.

And that is how Colin Kaepernick's rise helped revive the career of Vince Young.

"I needed a job," Young has said.

"This is an itch we wanted to scratch," Thompson explained at a media conference on Aug. 6, the day Young was signed. It didn't hurt that Green Bay's shaky offensive line was again playing like it might get starter Aaron Rodgers pummeled at minimum, and maimed at worst, even before left tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost, possibly for the season, with a knee injury.

See, before Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III became instant sensations last year, before the 2013 schedule came out showing the Packers play both quarterbacks the first two weeks of this season, before The Spread and The Pistol and Chip Kelly's decision to bring his fast-break college offense to the Philadelphia Eagles and Michael Vick's triumphant return all helped challenge the notion that a running quarterback can't succeed in the NFL (unless his name happens to be Tim Tebow), Young was touted as the revolutionary dual-threat who was going to tear up the league.

He came out of the University of Texas after having just won one of the greatest college football games ever played, the 2006 Rose Bowl. After he rang up 467 total yards that night to win the national title over a USC team that some folks were calling the best in the history of the game, Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese famously said of Young, "He will rewrite the position."

Is that ability still somewhere in him?

"That's the mystery … the intrigue," Thompson said.

Now, Young may not make the Packers' team.

The last time he played an NFL regular-season down was 20 months ago, back when he was still with the Eagles club that he was lampooned for christening the "Dream Team" before the 2011 season started because they'd made some nice offseason moves, including … ahem … adding him.

He was gone in a year.

Buffalo took him to training camp last season, but cut him in August after trading for underwhelming Tavaris Jackson. When asked if Young was released because his tendency to drift into conflagrations or screwups had caught up to him again, Bills coach Chan Gailey refused to comment.

But it seemed obvious.

Even for a pro athlete, Young's past is flecked with a mind-boggling mix of the good, the bad and the weird. Early in his NFL career, there were foreshadowings that trouble could be on the way, such as when Internet photos went viral in 2008 showing him shirtless in a bar and guzzling tequila straight from a bottle. Later, there were sad asides, too, such as the time he mentioned the word "suicide" to his therapist before disappearing for hours with a gun, prompting Titans coach Jeff Fisher to call 911 and spark a police search. (That was also in 2008, and Young insisted he had no intention of harming himself.)

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesVince Young will have to scramble to make the Packers roster.

Which is fine. But it doesn't explain some of the other tempestuous episodes in his past. During the 2010 season, after Fisher refused to put him back into a Week 11 game against the Redskins after he suffered a hand injury, Young threw his shoulder pads into the stands and later had an "altercation" with his head coach in the locker room. Not long afterward, the Titans gave up on him.

That same year, Young began having some legal problems, too. He was sued in 2010 for allegedly punching out an employee at the Onyx strip club in Dallas who refused to grant his alleged wish to have $8,000 charged to his credit card and paid out to him in $1 bills. The Eagles signed him as a backup in 2011 but kept him only a year. He had borrowed $1.9 million and promptly spent $300,000 on a birthday party for himself. By September, he defaulted on the loan and was sued again. He then signed with Buffalo in May of 2012.

Some of the details contained in the second lawsuit explain how everyone found out in September of 2012 -- just weeks after the Bills released him -- that the $34 million Young earned in his career after being made the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, and the reported $30 million in endorsement money was gone.

There are other incidents too. And Young had a catchall term for all of it when he arrived in Packers camp.

"That was the young Vince," he said.

We'll see if he sticks around long enough to prove, at 30, he's beyond it.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Young has been understandably rusty in his first 15 days with the team. But he'll get another chance to make a case for himself this week in Green Bay's third preseason game against Seattle.

At a media conference the day Young signed, Thompson has allowed "Oh, I suppose" it's true that it would have been better to sign Young in May, when he would've had more time to learn the playbook rather than show up cold.

Thompson also admitted that Young was sat down for "a conversation" about his past when he was run through his one-day tryout. But a split-second later, the halcyon day memories overtook Thompson again, and the Packers GM was telling a story about the night before Young arrived in town. Seems a couple of Packers personnel men happened to be flipping through TV channels and -- what do you know? -- they came upon a replay of that USC-Texas Rose Bowl that Young dominated.

"They told me they took it as a sign," Thompson said with a smile. "He was a monster in that game."

But Young is both a monster talent and a superstar manqué.

Given how vulnerable the Packers would be if Rodgers gets hurt, they had nothing to lose by signing Young to a non-guaranteed, veteran's minimum contract of about $800,000 and taking a low-risk flyer on which "young Vince" they'll get.

Will it be the wayward pro who squandered a fortune and has often seemed tormented and immature? Or the man who made even the crustiest NFL team executives -- men who are normally allergic to risk-taking and hyperbole -- forget themselves and say that, once upon a time, Vince Young played some of the most incandescent football they'd ever seen a college quarterback play?

Thompson might've forgotten about Young, too, if Colin Kaepernick hadn't come along.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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