McNair turns up the volume

Titans: Quarterback Steve McNair has shed his laid-back label this season, embracing his role as vocal leader of Tennessee's offense.

January 07, 2001|By Brent Jones | By Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Something is a little out of character for Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair this season.

He's loud.

Not most of the time, but when he has to, McNair can yell at his teammates as much as Titans coach Jeff Fisher does at a referee after a questionable call.

Take halftime of the Titans' Nov. 19 game against Cleveland. Tennessee had turned the ball over on its first four possessions and finished the first half scoreless against the lowly Browns. McNair had seen enough.

"He sort of laid into us pretty good," said Titans tight end Frank Wycheck. "He told us to get our act together. Don't wait around for people to make plays. Step up on your own.

"He really broke out of his shell in terms of being a vocal leader. He has always led by example. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and we all knew that. It is just that he took that next step to being a vocal leader. And it hit home with a lot of guys."

Expect a similar outburst if the Titans do not execute in today's AFC divisional playoff game against the Ravens at Adelphia Coliseum.

This, though, is not the way McNair has behaved for the bulk of his six-year career. McNair and emotion did not always go together. By nature, he is a laid-back guy who prefers to leave the vocal motivational ploys to others, specifically running back Eddie George.

But with the Titans coming a yard short from sending last year's Super Bowl into overtime, McNair felt the need to bring his game to another level. For most players, that means working on a physical aspect. For McNair, it meant getting into his teammates' faces, something normally expected out of a quarterback.

"I'm feeling more comfortable in that vocal leadership role," McNair said. "Guys feel like if things don't go right, I should be the one who should step up. Being the quarterback and able to touch the ball every play, I should be the one to step up. I've been able to accept that role. The guys accept me having that role.

"Guys are willing to pay the price to listen and do the things it takes to win. If I feel like something is slipping or we are not doing things right, I can step up and correct anybody, including the veterans or the rookies."

There isn't much need for correcting a team that finished with the NFL's best record (13-3) and sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl.

Yet, when McNair has to be critical, he is. He gets specific, calling out particular players, as he did in a halftime outburst against the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks before the Browns game.

The Titans responded with a come-from-behind win on a late Al Del Greco field goal against the Steelers, and a 24-point second-half outburst against the Browns two weeks later.

"He's playing like a guy who has been through some experiences," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "He's taken over in the huddle.

"He's accepted the role of being a leader. He is getting on guys for not running the right routes. He's doing the things that he needs to do for us to have success. That's the sign of a great quarterback, to address things when there are problems. And it's all been in one year."

McNair threw for 2,847 yards this season with 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. He also was second on the team in rushing with 404 yards.

Statistically, McNair has had better years, though he completed a career-high 62.6 percent of his passes. But McNair said he has grown in the Titans' run-oriented offense and now fully understands his role.

"He's way better," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "He understands the game better and he doesn't force things. Even last year, he was forcing the ball in there. He hasn't done that really at all this year.

"Their offense has done a tremendous job of putting him in situations where he didn't have to throw the football 50 to 60 times a game, and his decision-making has been tremendous."

McNair also has had to deal with injuries to his receivers. Carl Pickens, signed as a free agent after leaving Cincinnati, did not work out the way the Titans had hoped.

Pickens missed eight games this season with a nagging hamstring injury, and Yancey Thigpen continued his injury-prone three-year stint with the Titans, missing five games and playing hurt through others. Kevin Dyson tore up his knee after the second game of the season.

That has left McNair with Derrick Mason and Chris Sanders, the fourth and fifth receivers on the preseason depth chart, as his top two guys for three-quarters of the season. But McNair did have his favorite target, Wycheck, who led the team with 70 catches.

And if Wycheck or his receivers are not there, McNair is more apt to dump the ball off to George. George had a career-high 50 catches this season.

"Steve's done a much better job this year in the pocket reading [the defense], going through the progressions and making good decisions," Fisher said.

And he still can run with the best of quarterbacks. McNair's ability to scramble - though he will be slowed somewhat with a slight ankle sprain - could be the difference today between two evenly matched teams. The Titans and Ravens both have big, bruising running backs, top-notch defenses and solid special-teams play.

The Titans, though, have a guy who came so close to winning the Super Bowl last season, it made him revamp his personality.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes for us to get to the next level," McNair said.

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