Hope is in the air

McNair gives Ravens reason to believe in passing game

September 07, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun Reporter

The final piece of the Ravens' offensive puzzle didn't arrive until 94 days before the regular season.

In terms of the evolution of their passing game, the wait for Steve McNair really wasn't that long.

The Ravens had to go through 13 starting receivers - from Justin Armour to Travis Taylor - before landing Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton last season.

They had to go through 10 starting quarterbacks - from Scott Mitchell to Kyle Boller - before trading for McNair in mid-June.

Now, after seven painstaking years of building a legitimate passing attack, the hope for the Ravens is that they can finally take flight and go from a disappointing 6-10 season to the rare air of the playoffs.

That's how important the passing game has become in the NFL. That's how vital the quarterback is in the AFC.

In a conference loaded with stars like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer, it's tough to have the same aspirations when your quarterback is Aaron Brooks, J.P. Losman or even Boller.

That's why it was so critical for the Ravens to bring in a sure thing like McNair, who represents the full package that they have long searched for.

"Everybody is talking about that I'm the Baltimore savior. No, Baltimore saved me," McNair said. "I fell into a special situation. This group as a whole is a lot better than my MVP season. If we can stay healthy and consistent, we can have a hell of a year offensively."

In this age of the NFL, the road to the playoffs is through the air.

The top four passing attacks over the past five seasons - Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Green Bay - have combined for 12 postseason appearances. The bottom four over that span - the Ravens, Washington, Houston and Chicago - have totaled just five playoff berths.

Catching up to the rest of the league hasn't been easy for the Ravens.

The only move that worked out immediately in the passing game was drafting tight end Todd Heap in the first round in 2001.

The Ravens' search for a veteran receiver wasn't as simple. They signed Mason, a consistent 85-plus catch receiver, last year only after failing to acquire Terrell Owens or Randy Moss.

Similarly, after striking out in the draft with Taylor and Patrick Johnson, the Ravens used their 2005 first-round pick on Clayton, who is primed for a breakout season.

That meant the only void was at quarterback, which presented another hurdle.

With the Tennessee Titans playing hardball in trade talks, the Ravens were stuck in limbo for five months after the season ended before reaching an agreement and signing McNair to a five-year, $32 million contract.

"You look at what we have now, it doesn't take much to put the pieces together to recognize that we have a lot more capability for no other reason we have a lot better players across the board," coach Brian Billick said.

The addition of McNair changes the personality of the entire team.

No longer are the Ravens a one-dimensional, plodding offense. No longer are the Ravens solely dependent on their defense.

For the first time in the Billick era, the Ravens can enter the regular season with high expectations for the offense, which is one of five in the NFL to finish in the bottom third in passing each of the past four seasons.

The Ravens now can envision McNair finding Heap over the middle, hitting Mason in the seam and launching a deep throw to Clayton.

"We can't be scared to take control as an offense," McNair said. "We have to have that mind-set. Guys believe that with the talent we have, we can do it."

Accuracy is key

The Ravens believe they have hit the target with McNair because he seems to always hit his.

Despite only a couple of months in the system, McNair completed an astounding 76.1 percent of his preseason passes. His completion rate over the past six seasons is 61.6 percent.

His accuracy means the Ravens can depend on the passing game more than in any other season. Because the team has never connected on more than 60 percent of its throws in the Billick era, the Ravens were more hesitant to throw on first and second downs.

"My theory as a quarterback has always been patience," McNair said. "It's not always throwing 40 yards down the field. It's about getting the ball into your playmakers' hands."

Always a stickler for statistics, Billick estimates that the Ravens only need two or three more completions a game to boost this offense from No. 24 last season to the middle of the pack.

In Billick's assessment, those extra completions will extend three more drives (which amounts to one quarter of the possessions in a typical game) that should lead to a 25 percent increase in offensive productivity.

"Steve's accuracy - and he throws such a catchable ball - you have reason to believe that now those two or three receptions a game will come this season," Billick said. "It does add up all together. You can see why you covet the efficiency."

Deep questions

The one question lingering over the passing game is the deep ball.

It's been more Mid-Range McNair than Air McNair.

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