If McNair stays fit, all is well on offense

August 19, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens have an offense. Finally.

That's the message to take away from the team's first two preseason games.

Your eyes aren't deceiving you. You aren't experiencing some heat-related summertime hallucination. The first-team offense is moving the ball up and down the field with new quarterback Steve McNair in charge.

Yes, there were enough red-zone miscues to limit the unit's production to a single field goal Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, but to focus on those mistakes is to miss the larger story.

For the first time in years, the quarterback's passes are mostly on target, third downs are routinely being converted to firsts and the proper run-pass balance is unfolding naturally. And it's all happening without All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden, whose imminent return will only help.

It's too soon to pronounce the Ravens serious Super Bowl contenders as a result of their improved offense; moving the ball at home in the preseason is a far cry from, say, moving it late in the regular season at Pittsburgh.

But it's not too soon to proclaim the Ravens more than capable offensively, and with their array of play-making runners and receivers ranging from Todd Heap to Musa Smith, maybe even dangerous - provided McNair is around to run the show.

That's the Big If, of course. Kyle Boller, with his 34 career starts, is a handy backup, but McNair, with his poise, presence and experience, is far better at moving the ball. An injury to McNair would be a major setback.

There's concern about that within the Ravens' organization because McNair is 33 and has a lengthy injury history that has focused at different times on his back, sternum, calf, ankles, ribs and toes. Only once in the past five seasons has he played in all 16 regular-season games.

At the same time, though he is known for getting banged up, he also is known for playing through pain rather than submitting to it. Other than in 2004, when he missed eight games because of a sternum injury, he hasn't missed consecutive starts since 1999.

In the two preseason games here, he has shown why he tends to get "nicked." (That's what some players and coaches call getting injured, as if getting steamrollered by a 350-pound nose guard is akin to cutting yourself shaving.) He has an instinct for knowing how long he can stay in the pocket and keep his feet planted before he gets hit. The offense benefits, but he's a whirlpool visit waiting to happen.

"That's part of this game," McNair said late Thursday after the Ravens' 20-10 win. "When you scramble, you can be smart and protect yourself by sliding or going out of bounds. But when you're in the pocket and [the blocking breaks down], there's no way you can protect yourself and no way you can get out of harm's way sometimes."

In other words, you can be smart, but you also need to be lucky and hope the inevitable hard hits don't knock you out. The Ravens can only cross their fingers.

McNair has learned to sway the odds in his favor when he can. On a second-quarter scramble Thursday, he was about to run out of bounds when he saw the Eagles' Sheldon Brown steaming hungrily toward him. Not knowing whether Brown would let up, McNair slid to the ground to avoid contact even though he was already almost out of bounds.

"That was experience. Just being smart," McNair said with a smile. "But other than like that, I don't think about staying healthy when I'm out there. I think about trying to score points and win. If you go out there worried about whether you're going to stay healthy, you're going out for the wrong reason."

History suggests the Ravens will be forced to turn to Boller at some point in 2006; it is rare for any NFL quarterback, especially those McNair's age, to make it through a season without missing at least one game due to injury. (And yes, Boller will be the backup. Those who have speculated that it might be Brian St. Pierre or Drew Olson need to chill.)

Boller made several big plays while almost having his head removed behind the leaky second-team offensive line Thursday. He can't move the ball consistently like McNair, but he is just as tough.

"I just told Kyle to relax and have fun out there," McNair said. "You have to have fun playing this game."

McNair has seen and done it all, and his natural confidence has transformed the Ravens' offense. There are still kinks to work out, but the eternally sputtering engine is actually almost humming - as long as McNair remembers to slide, so he can keep getting up.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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