Top-rated QB McNair is exuding air of victory

NFL: Revising his recent history as a rusher, the ninth-year pro is having a career year and has his Titans standing 6-2.

November 08, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - If you are playing the Tennessee Titans, the only thing worse than Steve McNair stomping out of the pocket on an impromptu run is McNair sitting there, reading his pass progressions, until a receiver pops open.

It didn't use to be that way.

It used to be that opponents feared McNair's legs far more than his arm. They knew he would never hang long in the pocket, not if there was a lane to scamper through.

They knew he would never get to his third or fourth option in the passing game, not if the pass rush was coming full throttle.

Now they know better.

Now they fear the passer, too.

In his ninth season as an NFL quarterback, McNair, 30, has been through the mill. He came into the league as a heralded rookie in 1995, when he was the third pick in the draft. He lived through the "Dare McNair" years, when opposing defenses would bunch eight players at the line and dare McNair to beat them downfield.

Now, he has come full circle, back to the "Air McNair" mystique he created at tiny Alcorn State, where he was one of college football's most prolific playmakers.

This year, no quarterback in the NFL is playing better.

"There was a time, in '97, '98, '99, if I was asked if he was one of the top three quarterbacks in the league, I would have said probably not," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "But I felt at that time he was probably one of the top three football players in the league because of his running, because of his versatility, because of everything he did.

"I'll say now, he's one of the top three quarterbacks [because of] the way he's playing right now, with his confidence and his poise and his health."

McNair finished third in the league's MVP voting last season with career highs in passing yards (3,387) and touchdowns (22). Through eight games this year, he leads the NFL in passer rating (105.1), ranks third in completion percentage (.651) and is tied for third in touchdown passes (13).

Where does McNair say he stands among his peers?

"You have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Brett Favre, for all the things he's accomplished, a three-time MVP," McNair said. "And you have the most athletic quarterback in [Atlanta's] Michael Vick.

"It's my standpoint that if you can put those two guys together, you have Steve McNair."

But Floyd Reese, the Titans general manager, said we have not seen the best of McNair yet.

"Every day I go out [to practice], he does something a little bit better," Reese said. "If we can keep him healthy, I don't know where the end is because you don't see a plateau.

"When did [John] Elway start playing great? Thirty-three, 34? When did Steve Young play great? Thirty-four? Steve just turned 30, so he's got, four, five, six good years left."

With McNair, it all begins - and ends - with health. Starting with the 1999 season, he has redefined toughness as it currently applies to quarterbacks. Briefly recapping:

Early in 1999, he missed five games after surgery to repair a ruptured disk in his lower back. When he came back, the Titans won eight of the last 10 regular-season games and wound up in the Super Bowl.

In Week 2 of 2000, he took a helmet to the chest against Kansas City and suffered a badly bruised sternum. Two weeks later, after a bye week and after starter Neil O'Donnell was hurt, McNair engineered a 55-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes against Pittsburgh. His third completion of the drive beat the Steelers, 23-20.

He was so beat up last December with a variety of injuries - turf toe, strained ribs, sore back - that he never practiced. The Titans went 5-0 anyway.

"The injuries Steve has had, any other quarterback would sit out," said Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason. "After he had back surgery, for him to come back and perform at a high level, that just shows you the toughness of Steve."

Fisher likes to cite a 2000 game against Pittsburgh.

"They carried Neil off the field bleeding from the nose and half unconscious," Fisher said. "I looked at Steve and Steve winked at me, took a ball, warmed up a couple times and went on the field. His third pass was a touchdown and he walked off the field."

Reese summoned a perspective gleaned from his time as an assistant coach on Bud Grant's Minnesota Vikings team in the early 1980s.

"Bud used to say, `It's one thing to play when you're injured. [But] it's another thing to play as well or better than you normally do.' And that's what Steve does."

McNair's health is a prime reason the Titans (6-2) take the league's fourth-ranked pass offense against the Miami Dolphins (5-3) tomorrow. For the first time in several years, he didn't have offseason surgery and could participate in minicamps and passing camps.

The dividends are evident. McNair threw for 421 yards in one game and has changed the team profile from a running team to a passing team.

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