Armed with knowledge, QB McNair hits books

July 16, 2006

When you get a new job, your bosses might hand you one of those training guides for new employees, some type of orientation packet that's usually pretty easy to toss without ever actually opening.

Steve McNair got something like that from his new employer - a thick binder packed with a few hundred pages. Unlike the handbook you or I might get, McNair has to memorize his completely, and he's working with a pretty tight deadline.

In a quiet period when most of the NFL is focused on squeezing all it can out of the offseason, McNair has been cramming for a pretty big test, one that will last four months and is packed with pressure and expectations at every turn.

Playbooks for NFL teams can be 300 to 500 pages long. McNair, who was traded to the Ravens last month, has been taking his everywhere he goes. It's early still, but coaches say they like what they've seen thus far from their new quarterback.

McNair was in town last week. The trip was geared around finding a place to live, but he still stopped by the team's offices all three days in town. He met with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, and the two continued their dissection of the playbook. McNair asked questions; Fassel gave answers.

McNair also stepped onto the field and ran through some routes with wide receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, both of whom were also in town.

McNair is expected back later this week, and he'll do it all again.

"He seems to be real excited about what we're doing," Fassel says of his new quarterback. "You can tell right away that he's a pretty sharp guy. I love his demeanor: very calm and coachable. He's picking things up quite well."

The cynic in you remembers back to last season and figures that learning the Ravens' offense can't be much tougher than reading a picture book. The quarterback spins around for a couple handoffs, overthrows a receiver and then waits for the punt team, right?

But the problems last season were in execution, not necessarily design. This year's playbook won't be too different from last year's, though the plays that get called most often could certainly change.

Fassel has been in the game for 33 years. While he has coached young quarterbacks such as John Elway, Scott Mitchell and Kerry Collins, he also has helped veterans - Jeff Hostetler and Boomer Esiason - learn new systems.

"Steve's picking everything up like you'd expect from one of the top guys in this league," Fassel says. "He's smart and he already knows what he's doing.

"Think of this like calculus class. I don't have to tell him that four times four is 16. He knows that already."

The difficult part of joining a new team isn't simply memorizing the offensive formations. It's the idiosyncrasies that are tied to each snap. The quarterback must figure out the play and then understand all the different versions and formations attached to it. Each look the defense presents could mean the execution of a play is tweaked and the quarterback's progression changes.

"If we call a given play and he sees a cover-3 [defense] with a single safety deep, he might look Y to Z to X to the halfback," Fassel says. "But then if it's a cover-2, the progression changes and sometimes the routes will adapt and change, too. And then if it's a two-deep, man-under ... well, you get the idea. He just has to be ready for everything."

Right now, Fassel has McNair working almost exclusively with the playbook. The two also go through PowerPoint presentations. It's very much like a student-teacher relationship in these early stages, with Fassel constantly gauging his pupil to see just how the information is soaking in.

"You can tell a guy who's been studying from a guy who hasn't," Fassel says. "Steve keeps coming back with more questions. He's making his own notes, and you can tell he's focused on picking this all up."

McNair's eyes were opened early on. After spending just four days with the playbook, he hit the field for his first practice and was so lost he needed MapQuest just to find the huddle.

His comfort level can only improve with time.

"It's one thing to sit in a classroom and just look at tape and go over the playbook, and it's another thing to go to the field and recognize everything the same way," Fassel says.

Even when McNair and his receivers are meeting and running routes together, the real test won't come until training camp begins in two weeks and the game moves from the playbook to the playing field.

Fassel says he isn't too concerned. He's counting on a short learning curve because McNair has so much history reading sophisticated defenses, and he already understands the speed of the game.

No, it wasn't much of an offseason this time around. Fassel certainly wasn't able to take all of his vacation days, and for McNair, every day has been like the night before a big test.

It won't be long now. Soon we'll see how all this studying pays off.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after -- Rick Maese

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