With McNair, there's air of hope

On the Ravens

June 08, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

Steve McNair isn't the quarterback he used to be, but he gives the Ravens hope for the immediate future and silences the team's biggest critic, linebacker Ray Lewis.

For the past two weeks, we've been hearing about the Ravens' new team love affair, a much different theme from the past two seasons, when they had major chemistry problems. Jamal Lewis loves Brian Billick. Billick loves Ray Lewis, and Ray Lewis feels the same way about Billick. Kelly Gregg and Ray Lewis made up, and everybody loves Kyle Boller.

It was all orchestrated theater by a team about to embark on a new era.

But with McNair, 33, about to become a Raven pending a physical, the club has a player who might breathe life into the franchise and help the Ravens overcome problems that divided the team.

The arrival of McNair, a close friend of Ray Lewis', and the drafting of mammoth defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the first round also send a clear message to Lewis: Shut up, play ball and stop undermining your coach.

"I played with McNair a couple of times in the Pro Bowl," said Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden. "He's like one of the toughest guys there is. He's always banged up, but he is out there every week.

"You've got to love a guy like that," Ogden said. "He is a different type leader than a Tom Brady, but he'll take a chance and get it done. It should be interesting."

No one expects McNair to light up the air as he did during his prime in Tennessee. But unlike Boller, he can throw accurate screen passes. Unlike Boller, he can throw to where the receiver is going instead of to the spot he just vacated. He still can throw the long sideline pass, or drill an intermediate pass over the middle. At 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, McNair has a presence in the huddle.

He commands respect. Boller gets none.

The fourth-year quarterback had unintentionally become a divisive force during the past two seasons. Most players lost confidence in him, and the coaching staff finally reached the same conclusion at the end of the 2005 season, when the Ravens finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

If the Ravens hadn't gotten a new quarterback, this might have become a dark period in the team's history. Without McNair, this might have become Billick's last season. But now, there's hope.

McNair has his own agenda, according to some of those around him. They say he's arrogant, standoffish, likes to talk about himself in the third person and is a team guy only on Sunday. There are those with the Titans who believe he is finished and that it's time for him to retire. McNair can't move like he used to, and he's not likely to run outside the pocket or downfield anymore because he's prone to injuries.

But former University of Maryland and Titans tight end Frank Wycheck says McNair has one or two good years remaining and just needs a change of scenery. In Baltimore, he won't have to carry the team because he has weapons in receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap. Even with those weapons last year, no one had faith in Boller.

That's the bottom line to this deal. McNair, old and broken down, is still better than Boller and can make plays that Boller can't.

Around the league, McNair is just as big as Ray Lewis and Billick. Ray Lewis spoke to the local media in a group setting yesterday for the first time since October. He was part preacher and teacher, and overall made no sense, but he was put on the back burner once the possible McNair deal was announced.

The Ravens want to silence Lewis as much as possible in the locker room. He made a lot of people in the organization angry during the offseason, criticizing teammates and management. In the past, he has received the bulk of special treatment awarded to star players, but last year went into isolation because the team failed to give him a contract extension.

But now Lewis has nothing to complain about except the money. And some of the pressure might be off Billick because he no longer has to defend a quarterback he wanted and got in the first round of the 2003 draft.

The pressure now shifts to an average offensive line that had problems protecting Boller last season. There's also more pressure on the Lewises, Jamal and Ray, who both showed signs of slowing down last season because of major injuries suffered during the past two seasons.

But, overall, this was a good move by the Ravens, because they've already said the window of opportunity for the playoffs will close in two years when they have to make another salary cap purge. We're probably seeing the last hurrah for players such as the Lewises, Ogden, Mason, guard Edwin Mulitalo, center Mike Flynn and cornerback Chris McAlister.

After a subpar free-agency period and an average draft, the Ravens have given fans something to get excited about. These players will play hard for McNair because they have something to play for. It should be more entertaining than last season.

There's some hope.

Finally. mike.preston@baltsun.com

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