McNair creates an air of possibility

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 27, Buccaneers 0

September 11, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Tampa, Fla. — Tampa, Fla.-- --With 65,000 fans screaming, cameras wrapped around the field like a paparazzi convention and thousands more watching on television, it can be hard to keep a secret. And sure enough, it took less than a quarter for the Ravens to spill the beans: Yes, with Steve McNair in charge, this can be a good team, and yes, there's potential for it to be a great team.

For weeks, whenever anyone has tried to forecast this year's Ravens, they've used the same qualifiers - if ... as long as ... maybe ... possibly. They're a long way from anything resembling "definitely," but the expectations changed for the Ravens yesterday. In the wake of a dominant 27-0 road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the dial was turned up several notches. The dream sequence doesn't seem like such a long shot now, does it?

In a relatively short period of time, the Ravens managed to bury the past and bolster hopes for the future. That NFL-high 11-game road losing streak? It was all anyone talked about leading up to the game but was barely an afterthought when McNair walked out of the tunnel for his first regular-season game in purple.

The defense certainly deserves a lot of credit for yesterday's win, but it's the offense that set the tone, it's the offense that had to prove itself and it's the offense that makes you dream about the possibilities this season might hold.

Sounds ridiculous when you look at the stat sheet, right? No running back topped 100 yards. No receiver topped even 75. And McNair didn't throw for 200. But don't think for a second that other teams won't be reviewing film of the Ravens' opening drive. That one set the tone - for the game, and also for this thing we've come to call the McNair era.

"You knew that Steve - that the old Steve - was there," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who played with McNair in Tennessee for eight seasons. "The way he commanded the huddle, the way he methodically drove us down the field, handing the ball off to Jamal [Lewis], throwing it to Todd [Heap], throwing the ball to myself."

The offense looked better on that drive than any other yesterday. McNair and Mason hooked up three times - for three first downs. The quarterback went to Mason a fourth time, but there was a flag on the play, a pass-interference call that resulted in another first down.

In the opening minutes, Lewis had seven carries for 34 yards, found holes and ultimately found the end zone. In all, the drive marked the first time in team history the Ravens scored on their season-opening drive. It milked 9:16 off the clock and gave the defense something to work with. The offense didn't always feed off that momentum, but the defense never let it go yesterday.

"[We] set the tempo and that gets our defense riled up and ready to go," Lewis said. "We've got to get each other's back, and that's what we did."

McNair's throws weren't always on target, but his presence in the pocket was something Ravens fans are unfamiliar with. He never appeared anxious, didn't rush throws and seemed to see the entire field. (Meanwhile, his Buccaneers counterpart, Chris Simms, is scheduled to appear on the Maury Povich show this week where a paternity test will hopefully identify his real father.)

Especially early in the game, even the offensive line - a unit that underachieved with the same names and faces a season ago - played well, opening holes for Lewis and giving McNair plenty of time in the pocket. Tackle Jonathan Ogden gave the group an 8 1/2 on a 10-point scale.

"I'm a perfectionist," he said. "We did a great job, but I'd like to see us get better. You can't listen to what everyone else says about your chances. We knew something like this was possible. Was it probable? Did I think we could beat them 27-0 in the opener? No, I didn't imagine that."

After Week 1, we still don't know exactly what's probable for these Ravens. But what's possible is starting to come into focus a bit.

If he's healthy, maybe Steve McNair can possibly lead this team to the postseason (as long as he's on his feet and not on a stretcher). Yeah, probably.

We knew the defense would be capable of great things. The difference between this year's team and last year's is going to be the offense. Forget what the doctors and the experts and the disgruntled Titans fans might think: McNair has a lot of football still left in him.

"It's another chapter in his life, and what he wants to do is end this chapter on a good note," Mason said. "It starts with the first game - with the win - and it ends with the last game. Whatever that last game is, only God knows."

The Ravens entered their season opener as underdogs; they marched off the field as favorites. As they walked into the locker room - some bouncing, some chatting, most smiling - you could hear Ray Lewis.

"They didn't know what was coming," he said to no one in particular. "It's not their fault."

The secret is out now. Notice has been given. The McNair era, when anything might be possible, has begun. rick.maese@baltsun.com

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