ATLANTA — No one has ever summed up the distance between the SEC and the NFL better than Steve Spurrier when he noted, “There are no Vanderbilts in the NFL.”
Bryce Young spent the past two years shoving around most of college football, including the SEC. He won 23 games as a starter and lost only four. No team beat him twice.
Now he’s in the NFL, and things are very different here. Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Falcons treated Young the way Young’s old squad treated wide-eyed freshman quarterbacks: with no pause, no deference, no mercy.
The Falcons sacked Young twice, intercepted him twice, and held him to 146 total passing yards en route to a 24-10 victory. Young took only two serious downfield shots all afternoon, overthrowing his receiver on both, and his longest completion of the day was 14 yards. The two interceptions — both thrown directly into the arms of safety Jessie Bates III — led straight to 10 Atlanta points.
“When turnovers happen, it’s on me,” Young said after the game, beginning a cadence of dozens of repetitions of “It’s on me.” It’s a classic postgame media tactic — take the blame on yourself, spread the credit to the team — one of many nuances that Young picked up from his old Alabama head coach, Nick Saban.
Young sidestepped the idea that the NFL's speed was unexpected or troubling. “[The Falcons] made great plays, and I did a poor job of taking care of the ball, managing certain situations,” he said. “The people around me did a great job. We had great calls. The game comes down to me executing.”
“He handled himself great,” said Young's current coach, Frank Reich. “He was in complete control. Even after we had turnovers, he was never down, he had that ‘next play’ mentality. The kind of pro you’d expect.”
Rookie quarterbacks, especially No. 1 draft picks, don’t get the luxury any longer of learning from the sideline. Teams invest massive resources and capital in quarterbacks — the Panthers dealt away two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and receiver D.J. Moore to get in position to pick Young No. 1 — and there’s simply no time to allow for gradual development. That’s why Young was named starter early in preseason, why he’s in the lineup and not backup Andy Dalton. When you’re thrown into the deep end of the pool, you don’t have many options.
“Not another guy in the world I’d rather work with,” Reich said. “He’s everything you’d want as a player, a leader, a person. I thought he did a lot of good things, handled himself really well on the road in a division game.”
One sidelight to Young’s debut that was amusing in the moment, less so after the loss: Panthers tight end Hayden Hurst slung Young’s first touchdown throw into the stands. The ball’s fate — and its new owner’s asking price — are unknown. Asked about the moment afterward, Young hinted that he knew something was afoot regarding his first touchdown ball, but his mind was very much elsewhere.
“We have a great quarterback room that took that choice out of my hands,” Young said cryptically. “They accounted for that. That was not where my focus was at.”
At the podium after the game, Young wrapped himself in a warm blanket of sports clichés, which, given the pressure of his role, is probably the smartest move.
“It’s not fun, not a great position to be in, but at the end of the day, it’s part of the game,” Young said. “It’s part of the sport I love, we all love. It sucks to be on this side, but we’ll try to turn the page and use it as fuel, use it as motivation.”
“Bryce is the last person I'm worried about how he’ll handle this,” Reich said. “He’s a team-first person. He’ll be hard on himself, and each of us should be.”
The Panthers open their home slate next week with another division matchup against the New Orleans Saints, followed by a trip to Seattle and a return to Charlotte to face Minnesota.
There’s no Vanderbilt in that bunch. But then, it's worth remembering that Young beat a few Georgias, Auburns and LSUs in his day, too.