McNair: QB as role player

High-mileage passer in college sets up run for Titans wickedly

Super Bowl XXXIV

January 29, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- It is easy to focus on what Steve McNair is not this week.

He is not a polished passer for the Tennessee Titans.

He is not a terribly accurate passer, even in the short game.

He is not the reason the Titans are here, preparing to play the St. Louis Rams tomorrow in Super Bowl XXXIV.

It would be easy to focus on what he is not, but it would miss the point of what McNair is and what he brings to the Titans in their miracle 16-3 season.

He is the X-factor in their offense. He is a fullback disguised in quarterback's clothing. He is the most physical quarterback in the NFL, the toughest to bring down and perhaps the most dangerous when he leaves the pocket.

Listen to Tennessee offensive coordinator Les Steckel.

"I started in this league in 1978," Steckel says, "and not to take away from anyone I've ever coached, but this guy is the toughest football player I've ever been around -- linebacker, defensive lineman."

Tough?

Last week, McNair limped around with a special boot on his left foot to relieve the pain of turf toe. He missed a practice. Then, in the AFC championship game, he ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the Titans' 33-14 upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Steve played the last couple of games when other quarterbacks wouldn't," said coach Jeff Fisher.

McNair played last season with a hip pointer, a bursa sac on his elbow and a cracked sternum. Didn't miss a game.

Only back surgery put him down this season. After throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1, he had surgery to repair a bulging disk and missed five games.

He came back on Oct. 31 to beat the then-undefeated Rams, 24-21. He threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns and scored on a 10-yard run.

But McNair didn't throw another touchdown pass until Dec. 19, a drought of six games that raised questions about his effectiveness as a passer and his longevity as the starter.

With McNair, there is this curiosity: He threw for 14,496 yards and 119 touchdowns in a storied career at little Alcorn State. Yet as a five-year pro -- and third-year starter -- he has not thrown for more than 3,228 yards in any NFL season.

In 11 starts this season, he passed for 2,179. While that averages to 198 yards per game, more was expected from the third pick in the 1995 draft.

"Mentally, I had to get used to it," McNair said of his still-evolving role with the Titans. "I threw for over 4,000 yards every year in college, and now you have a balanced attack, throwing for 100 or 200 yards every game.

"I knew in order for us to go where we had to go with a great running back like Eddie George, we had to get him the ball. That's been our approach -- to get Eddie started, and if we had to pass the ball, we can also do that."

That is one of the big questions of Super Bowl XXXIV. If the Rams' No. 1 rush defense can control George's running game, can McNair hurt them through the air?

Steckel scoffs at the suggestion McNair is a one-dimensional, running quarterback.

"I think that's totally distorted," Steckel said. "We told him in the opener against Cincinnati that our objective was to score 35 points. That was the mission statement by the head coach because [he] felt there were some mismatches on the Cincinnati side.

"So we had to throw -- you can't get 35 points running the football. So we just came out and threw the ball all over the lot and he had over 300 yards. I have not said that to him or the offense since."

After that, the Titans jumped on George's back. McNair makes big plays improvising out of the pocket, but George has fueled the team's Super Bowl run.

McNair admits he would like to run an offense like the one that helped Rams quarterback Kurt Warner win the MVP award this season. While the Titans run to set up an occasional pass, the Rams pass to set up an occasional run.

"I wonder [what it'd be like]," McNair said. "In time, I'll probably get that."

McNair had 72 runs in the regular season, leading the team with a 4.7 average gain. He is a terror on the quarterback draw, but not all his runs are designed. When protection breaks down, he is quick to take off.

"There's a lot that goes into being a quarterback," he said. "You have to be strong. You have to have the ability to elude the rush and get away from guys because 99 percent of the time, things don't happen like you want them to in the passing game. You have to be able to escape to give your receivers a second chance."

The Titans are never surprised when McNair runs.

"I think Steve wants to throw the ball first," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "But I think he gets in a situation and says, `OK, feet don't fail me now,' and he just takes off. He's probably got one of the best stiff arms in the business."

Another thing that defines McNair is his race. He is the second black quarterback to reach the Super Bowl. The first was Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins in 1987. But race is not an issue in Super Bowl XXXIV. McNair, the quarterback, is.

McNair hooked up with Williams by phone on Wednesday night, seeking advice.

"He told me not to go out there and do something that I haven't been doing all year," McNair said. "Continue to do the things I've been doing all year and not change things. He also said I should go out and play my game and don't try to force the issue."

For now, his game is to throw short, improvise often and give Eddie George the ball.

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