Reading signals creates doubts about McNair

September 06, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

It's hard trying to get that picture of quarterback Steve McNair out of your head, the one of him playing so poorly in the Ravens' 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season.

McNair completed 18 of 29 passes - but most of those were short - for a total of 173 yards. Two of his passes were intercepted, one deep in Colts territory in the first half that killed a drive and turned the momentum of the game.

McNair was baffled Jan. 13. Neither he nor the Ravens' coaching staff had an answer for the Colts' two-deep coverage. Quite frankly, McNair looked old and tired.

But he is back again to lead the Ravens, and you wonder whether this quarterback who will turn 35 in February has enough left to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

If the Ravens were in the NFC, the answer would be a definite yes. But it's a different story in the AFC. Two of the other top teams are Indianapolis, the defending Super Bowl champs, and the New England Patriots.

The Colts have Peyton Manning and the Patriots have Tom Brady. They have remained fairly healthy throughout their NFL careers, and both are in their prime. So ask yourself: In a close game, can McNair still make enough plays to compete with his counterparts?

It's a hard question to answer. McNair brings the same qualities to the Ravens that Manning and Brady bring to their respective teams. They all have confidence and swagger. They all know their way around the pocket and can find passing lanes when there appear to be none. Because of their pocket awareness, all three can make offensive lines look better than they are.

But Manning and Brady can still make all the throws that an NFL quarterback needs to make, such as the ones to the far side of the field and 12- to 15-yard comeback routes. They can still throw the deep ball effectively.

McNair?

He can still throw them, but not consistently. There are times when his passes lack zip. The Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, at least in the second meeting last season, were content to let McNair complete short passes just as long as they made tackles. It's a strategy the Ravens probably will see Monday night, when they open the season against the Bengals, and for the rest of the season.

I'm concerned, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome isn't.

"I played with Brian Sipe, and there were questions about his arm strength, and he ended up being the MVP, and threw for 3,000 to 4,000 yards," Newsome said. "There were questions about Bernie Kosar's arm strength near the end of his career, and all he did was win.

"Sometimes, arm strength is overrated," Newsome said. "There is something to be said about a quarterback who has anticipation, location, accuracy and feels like he can throw a ball where he wants. The quick release Steve has makes him extremely effective."

But Brady and Manning also have another major advantage because they both have big-play wide receivers. The Colts' Marvin Harrison has been one of the league's best for a decade, and the Patriots now have malcontent Randy Moss, who - when he feels like it - can dominate a game. In seasons past, Brady had mediocre receivers at best.

The Ravens don't have a proven deep threat. Starters Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are good, but more possession-type receivers. Second-year wide receiver Demetrius Williams might be the vertical threat the Ravens are looking for, but that's questionable.

You throw this at Newsome, and he remains unshaken in his faith in McNair. Of course, he has to be because he brought McNair to Baltimore. But Newsome's stance about McNair isn't just public relations.

He saw what McNair could do last season in limited time working in a new offense. McNair threw for 3,050 yards and 16 touchdowns, completing 295 of 468 attempts, the fourth-most attempts of his career.

Despite the poor showing in the playoffs, the Ravens won 13 regular-season games and finished No. 17 in total offense after being near the bottom for the first quarter of the season.

Maybe McNair can't hit home runs often anymore, but he can still direct long drives as he did against the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins in the preseason. You know the ones, where he just picks teams apart with short- to mid-range passes.

Indianapolis and New England have to take more chances because they don't have the No. 1-ranked defense in the league as the Ravens did last season. Quarterbacks with a lot less talent than McNair have made it to the Super Bowl (see Rex Grossman), and some have won (see Jim Plunkett and Trent "I'm Still Mad" Dilfer).

During various minicamps in the off season, McNair always seemed fit. He looked a lot fresher in training camp than he did a year ago.

"This time, he knew who he was playing with. Last year, he had that uncertainty, and when you have that uncertainty, it's hard to get going, hard to gear it up," Newsome said.

"Steve had a real serious talk with [coach Brian Billick] after the Colts game, and he left here with a purpose," Newsome said. "He has come back with a purpose, and you can see it in the way he has approached training camp and the preseason."

Newsome isn't concerned about McNair's past injuries.

"I was talking with a GM the other day about QBs, and he said two of the toughest guys in the league were Steve McNair and Brett Favre," Newsome said.

That doesn't ease my concern, nor does McNair reporting in great shape. It makes you feel better, but you're still uncertain. My mind keeps shooting back to January, and I keep remembering Manning and Brady making play after play in the Colts' 38-34 win over the Patriots in the AFC championship game. There were some incredible throws.

While watching the game, I kept thinking about McNair, wondering whether he could make those kinds of plays again in a big game.

And as the season opener approaches, I'm still wondering.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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