Showing Dents

'07 model of McNair is looking like a lemon

Ravens Analysis

November 07, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

The possibility of the Ravens bouncing back from a disappointing 4-4 start and reaching the playoffs seems slim at this point.

But what gives the Ravens the best chance to do so, Steve McNair as their starting quarterback or sitting on the bench?

With his performance in Monday night's 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, McNair has created a quarterback controversy among the Ravens' fan base. His statistics are among the worst of any NFL quarterback this season, as his 75.8 passer rating puts him behind the likes of Damon Huard, Joey Harrington and Brian Griese.

In a span of a season, McNair has gone from a quarterback who led the Ravens to the playoffs to one who is keeping them from going there. Whether it's his age (34) or the cumulative effect of injuries, the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback's decline has been a rapid one.

McNair doesn't seem to have the arm to make the big throws. He doesn't seem to make the right decisions anymore. He doesn't seem to avoid the pass rush and make plays with his legs. And he doesn't seem to command the same leadership.

Ravens coach Brian Billick backed McNair as his starter after the game and reiterated his support when asked about changing quarterbacks on his WBAL radio show.

"Steve wasn't alone in not playing well," Billick said. "We got a lot of faith in Steve. It would have to be a dramatic circumstance. ... We got a lot of faith in Kyle [Boller], but we have great faith in Steve McNair that he's going to do the things that he's done for us before."

The Ravens have pointed to injuries for McNair's struggles early in the season. A groin injury led to McNair's fumbles and inaccuracy in the first month, and a back injury sidelined him for two weeks in October.

But after 29 days of rest between starts and two weeks to prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers, McNair had no excuses in flopping before a national television audience.

He set an NFL record with the fewest passing yards (63) by a quarterback who completed at least 13 passes. He also had the second-fewest passing yards by a starting quarterback in Ravens history (behind Scott Mitchell, who was benched after throwing for 48 yards in a start in 1999).

This futile effort continues one of the worst stretches in McNair's 13-year career. In his past seven starts (dating to last season), he has averaged 196.2 passing yards per game, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions.

"We've got to do a lot of things better," McNair said. "I don't think we're all on the same page."

A look at the decline in McNair's game:

Lack of arm strength

It was only a year ago in Pittsburgh that McNair fired a 35-yard pass to Mark Clayton in the back of the end zone. This time in Pittsburgh, McNair couldn't complete a pass longer than 8 yards.

"Air" McNair has become a quarterback who is content throwing short passes in the flats.

He has connected on three passes for more than 20 yards this season - the fewest by an NFL quarterback with at least 60 completions - and one was a short swing to Willis McGahee, who ran for more than 20 yards. In comparison, former Raven Derek Anderson has 33 such passes for the Cleveland Browns.

The coaching staff has explained that the Ravens want a ball-control offense and don't call for deep passes downfield. But if you're not throwing long down 35-0 at Pittsburgh, when is the time to do it?

Bad decision-making

When the Ravens traded a fourth-round pick for McNair before last season, they never expected him to be a top-notch playmaker. But they envisioned him as a top-notch caretaker.

McNair has continually put the Ravens in bad positions this season, a trend underscored in Pittsburgh.

When trying to avoid a pass rush, he rolled off to the side but kept the ball at his hip, where it could be knocked away. The fumble at the Ravens' 20-yard line led to a touchdown.

Then, after having an interception dropped earlier in the game, McNair threw another careless pass over the middle that was picked off and returned to the Ravens' 44. That resulted in another touchdown.

This season, McNair has led the Ravens to four offensive touchdowns while committing eight turnovers (five fumbles and three interceptions).

"When things go bad for us, they go really bad," McNair said. "It's frustrating, it's really frustrating."

Less mobility

In the past, McNair didn't just bring a calmness to the huddle. He brought it to the pocket.

Unlike backup Boller, who hurries under pressure, McNair showed great awareness last season, knowing when to bolt for a first down or simply take a few steps to avoid the rush.

It has not been that way this season for McNair, who has lacked the ability to escape pressure in the pocket. He has been sacked nine times in five starts (compared with 14 sacks in 16 starts last season), and his throwing arm has been hit numerous times.

Behind an inconsistent offensive line, McNair doesn't seem to have the same survival skills.

Leadership void

A string of fourth-quarter comebacks created a strong following for McNair last season.

But when you're losing games instead of winning them, it's tough to have the same cachet on the field, even when you're the most accomplished quarterback in team history.

McNair's run of producing more turnovers than touchdowns could cause increased frustration on an aging Ravens team that sees its window of opportunity closing.

That's why this could be the time to make the switch from McNair to Boller.

"[Monday's loss] hurts. At the same time, you've got to let it go," McNair said. "This is midway through the season, and we've got a long way to go. We've got to bounce back from this."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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