For Titans, a change in the air

Vagabond O'Donnell fills in at QB for McNair

October 09, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

"Have Arm, Will Travel."

That could be the calling card for Neil O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland quarterback who has become a vagabond in the NFL.

O'Donnell, who will quarterback the Tennessee Titans tomorrow against the Ravens, is playing for his fifth head coach and fourth team in the past five years.

O'Donnell has become a symbol of the perils of free agency -- players who leave a good situation for a lucrative one that may not be a good fit for them.

In just more than three years, O'Donnell has gone from Super Bowl starter, a quarterback who got a $25 million deal, to one who has been cut in successive years by the Jets and Bengals.

He spent three months in the off-season looking for a job before signing with the Titans on July 23 for a modest $600,000 as Steve McNair's backup.

Vaulted into the starting lineup when McNair underwent back surgery after the opener, O'Donnell has gone 2-1 as a starter to boost the team's record to 3-1. He has a 92.4 quarterback rating, with five touchdown passes and two interceptions.

The Titans are ranked fifth in passing and 30th in rushing, and O'Donnell figures to throw a lot against the Ravens' secondary.

The Titans have been a positive experience for O'Donnell, who suffered through a a 1-15 season with the New York Jets in 1996 and a 3-13 season last year in Cincinnati, where he was 2-9 as a starter before getting hurt. One of those losses was a 31-24 setback in Baltimore, when he was knocked out with bruised ribs by a Michael McCrary sack.

Discussing the Titans, he said, "I think this team has a lot of character. It's not an individual team. Guys play to win. This team is close-knit. We play well as a team."

It's the first time O'Donnell has had a good supporting cast since he left Pittsburgh. He has a pair of good receivers, Yancey Thigpen and Kevin Dyson, along with Eddie George to trigger the running game, although George is off to a slow start.

Coach Jeff Fisher lauded O'Donnell even though the team had first downs three times inside the San Francisco 11 last week and came away with field goals.

"Neil's experienced. He understands the division. He's competitive. He's not going to make many mistakes. He's done a good job to this point. We're fortunate to have him," Fisher said.

O'Donnell, though, seems likely to go back to being a backup in a few weeks, when McNair returns, although Fisher has told O'Donnell to make the decision difficult for him when McNair is healthy.

"It was a confidence-related comment, and that's still the way we feel. I want him to make the decision difficult," Fisher said.

Fisher then indicated the decision has been made.

"The decision is when Steve comes back and he's healthy to play, he's our quarterback," he said. "Neil's role here is to back up when Steve's hurt."

O'Donnell, though, isn't conceding anything.

"In any position, there's a lot of competition. If there's not a backup guy fighting for a starting role, you should get out of this business. Even when I was backing up the first week here, I prepared the same way as if I was the starter," he said.

O'Donnell was the starter in Pittsburgh when the team went to Super Bowl XXX although interceptions of three of his passes helped Dallas win the game.

He was then lured away by the Jets' five-year, $25 million offer, which included a $7 million signing bonus. The Steelers were offering $18.75 million, with a $4 million signing bonus.

As it turned out, O'Donnell made $11.25 million from the Jets in two years before Bill Parcells cut him when he wouldn't take a pay cut.

O'Donnell then signed a four-year, $17 million deal with Cincinnati, but he was cut after making $5.25 million in one year there.

O'Donnell is set for life after making $17 million from the Jets and Bengals the past three years, but the days of big paydays may now be over for him.

O'Donnell, though, won't think about whether he would have made another Super Bowl if he'd stayed in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Steelers haven't made it back without him, and Kordell Stewart is struggling at quarterback.

"I never look back. I never look back at anything in life. That seems like so long ago. I'll never say a bad word about Pittsburgh, because I had a lot of success there and had a lot of fond memories. I just move on and keep working hard," he said.

Signed to a one-year contract in Tennessee, O'Donnell has to decide whether to move on one more time at the end of the season, but he's not looking ahead.

"It's hard to pick up your family and move. I'm not even worrying about that. My contract isn't up until Feb. 1, and there's a ton of football to be played, and a lot of things can happen here," he said.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Tennessee Titans

Site: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Tomorrow, 4:15p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Titans by 7

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