A strong reception

Air of good feeling, as McNair, fans bond

July 29, 2006|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Steve McNair's first connection this summer wasn't a deep pass to Derrick Mason or a touchdown throw to Todd Heap.

It was a heartfelt hookup that came moments after he stepped onto the field for his first Ravens training camp and heard the loud cheers from the crowd. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback responded by taking a lap around the field, exchanging high-fives with fan after fan.

The touching greeting officially turned the one-time bitter rival into a hometown hero.

"Today was a warm welcome for me to be a Raven," McNair said with a smile.

A majority of yesterday's crowd of 2,530 traveled to McDaniel College to catch their first glimpse of McNair, the primary reason for the area's renewed excitement over the Ravens.

After enduring a long list of disappointments - Elvis Grbac, Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, Anthony Wright and Kyle Boller - there is a feeling from players and fans alike that Air McNair can be the quarterback that elevates the Ravens back to being a Super Bowl contender.

That heightened pressure doesn't faze a quarterback like McNair, whose signature has been gutting out games with injuries and delivering comebacks in the final minute.

"There's been a lot on my shoulders for 12 years," McNair said. "The thing I have to do is play my game and everything else will take care of itself. I'm not trying to go out there and be Superman."

Now, after passing his first test with the fans, McNair has to ace some more challenging ones during the next few weeks.

He faces a time crunch to digest the playbook because he was traded to the Ravens so late in the offseason. In the weeks leading up to training camp, McNair tried to play catch-up, sitting down with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and throwing to a handful of receivers instead of taking a vacation.

McNair estimated yesterday that his comfort level with the system is about "60 to 70 percent."

"It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "I'm going to be patient."

McNair's first practice did not get off to a memorable start.

His best pass came when he floated a throw over a linebacker and into the hands of tight end Todd Heap. His worst came when he threw a short pass into the dirt. In between, it was a ragged mix of throws.

The Ravens, though, believe McNair brings more than a strong arm.

"He brings an overall confidence, calm and productivity," coach Brian Billick said. "It's something we need to build on and feed off of."

During the past six seasons - which have featured six different starters for the Ravens - McNair is the sixth-winningest quarterback in the NFL (56-37), making the playoffs three times.

"His resume should boost our morale," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We have a bona fide winner. Everyone knows we've been through some rough times. We're looking to change that."

McNair shies away from the notion that he will be a so-called savior for this offense and this team. In fact, he is the first to stress a balanced effort if the Ravens want to return to the playoffs.

"I'm not saying we're going to be an explosive offense. We're going to be methodical in running this thing," McNair said. "That's what this offense is all about, it's about executing and taking pressure off this defense so they can be well-rested in the fourth quarter. That was my goal coming in, and it's going to continue to be throughout the season."

Many players insist McNair is the missing piece to their championship puzzle.

"I've been here 11 years now, and we've been through quarterback, quarterback, quarterback," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's one thing to bring in a quarterback and say he's going to have a great future. It's another thing to bring in a quarterback who's proved it. That's where the excitement is really. It's not just the team; I think the city is excited as well."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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