McNair brings to Ravens presence they like to have

ON THE RAVENS

January 02, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

There were no last-second heroics, or great two-minute drives. There were few tight spirals and lofty touch passes. On Sunday against Buffalo, Ravens quarterback Steve McNair played and won the kind of game that the Ravens would have lost last season.

In fact, the Ravens lost to Detroit and Denver last season because they couldn't efficiently manage a game. Sunday, though, McNair was clean except for one interception, and thorough as the Ravens held nearly a 13-minute advantage in time of possession.

On a day when the Ravens running game was stagnant again and the deep ball was taken away, McNair made just enough plays to lead the Ravens to a 19-7 win against Buffalo, and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. He wasn't a gunslinger like Brett Favre or Peyton Manning, and he didn't have to make clutch throws like Tom Brady.

McNair was almost boring, completing 23 of 35 passes for 216 yards. But he ran the West Coast offense like it's supposed to be run, completing short pass after short pass, and controlling the clock.

"Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of McNair, and that's the way he plays," said Buffalo coach Dick Jauron. "He just finds a way to win. It's very difficult to unease their quarterback back there. He can run for a first down or throw for a first down. He's not alone. They are very talented on both sides of the ball."

But some of the offensive talent did not show up Sunday. The Bills played a lot of two-deep coverage that takes away the long pass. It forces offensive teams to have long, sustained drives.

The Ravens dropped four passes Sunday. They had four illegal procedure penalties. They had only 111 yards rushing, and 30 of those came on a run by halfback Mike Anderson with two minutes left in the game.

If McNair wasn't the quarterback, the Ravens would have been in trouble.

But he makes this offense look a lot better than it appears. The Bills didn't have a sack Sunday, but McNair was hurried numerous times. He either side-stepped the rush, stepped up in the pocket or scrambled down the middle of the field. Maybe no other quarterback in the league holds the ball as long as McNair to allow a receiver to get open.

Twice in the first half, he moved around long enough to find receivers on third down to keep drives alive. His best effort was a 24-yard pass down the left sideline to fullback Ovie Mughelli, who very seldom gets behind defenders. But with McNair finding time, even Mughelli can go deep.

"We worked hard during the week getting ready for Baltimore and we did a good job," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes. "We played a disciplined gap defense and it worked well. We did a good job covering up the gray area and kept them from getting any touchdowns."

But McNair has had an impact on the Ravens defense as well. Last season, the Ravens defense couldn't afford to gamble because one mistake might put an inept offense deeper in the hole.

But with McNair, it's different. Defensive players only have to worry about the defense now.

Cornerback Chris McAlister gambled and jumped in front of a short J.P. Losman pass, and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. You can't say that McNair's presence played a direct role in that play, but you get the picture.

The defensive players believe in McNair just as much as the ones on offense. A team that was wound tight a year ago has loosened up.

"We like getting the ball back and giving it to big, old No. 9," said Ravens outside linebacker Bart Scott. "We like seeing what he can do."

At age 33, he can still do it all, just not all the time. He needs a rest every now and then. But if he has to, McNair can throw 40 times in a game. He can still scramble and avoid the sack. McNair has thrown some great passes and some horrendous ones, too, and the inconsistency is a sign of age.

But against Buffalo, McNair was precise. He spread the ball around. Tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason and Mughelli all had five catches. He made it look kind of easy, so much in fact that there was no buzz about the kind of game he played.

That style of play might be taken for granted in places like Green Bay or Cincinnati, but not here in Baltimore. This city has gone through its share of bad quarterbacks, from guys who were too short (Eric Zeier) to guys who were too big (Scott Mitchell) to guys who cried (Elvis Grbac) to guys who just couldn't throw (Stoney Case).

The Ravens weren't close to perfect, but they didn't need to be. They were playing without two starting offensive linemen, and the Ravens still didn't give up a sack, and they committed only one turnover.

In the past, the Ravens might have lost a game that had a profile like Sunday's. Ravens quarterbacks have always been good for one or two turnovers that turn a game around. But you never got that feeling Sunday, not as long as McNair was the starting quarterback. It's a good feeling to have around town, one that this city hasn't had in a quarterback since the Ravens moved here 11 seasons ago.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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