His Legacy

Mcnair's Heart, Ability To Make Things Happen Set Him Apart

July 06, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

The legacy Steve McNair leaves in the NFL is strong on heart and leadership, short on eye-catching numbers. In fact, his nickname, Air McNair, often didn't fit his 13-year resume with the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Ravens.

Ice McNair would have been more accurate - if not as poetic - for the second black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl.

In Nashville and Baltimore, McNair earned a reputation for his gritty leadership and unflappable demeanor. Few players were cooler under fire, say those who played with and against him. No quarterback was tougher.

But what McNair did best in the pocket was find a way to win. He won by breaking the prototype for his position. He was a muscular 6-foot-2 230-pounder who could beat you with his feet or his arm. A fullback when he carried the ball, he was a linebacker when he made contact. He rarely threw interceptions. He was almost always hurting.

And he won: 91 times in 153 NFL games, a winning percentage of .595.

So how are we to remember the one-time National Football League Most Valuable Player, slain in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday at age 36 with two gunshots to the head and two to the chest?

For his dual threat out of the backfield? For his ability to play through pain? For the doors he opened for small-college quarterbacks and for black quarterbacks?

"Most quarterbacks have something they can hang their hats on," said Eric DeCosta, Ravens director of player personnel, on Sunday.

"With Steve, he did everything well. He had remarkable size and strength, and was tough to bring down. He could make a play with his feet when things broke down. He had a strong arm and was a very proficient passer."

But what stood out most to DeCosta was the poise McNair displayed when it came to crunch time, the decisions he made and the mistakes he avoided.

In 161 career games, McNair threw just 119 interceptions, against 174 touchdowns.

"I think he had a lot of poise," DeCosta said. "He wasn't forced into making a play he didn't want to make.

"What set him apart was his calmness in the huddle. I don't think a lot of people were aware of that," DeCosta said. "Add his physical abilities and the intangible qualities he had, and that made him very tough to beat."

Both DeCosta and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome described McNair as one of the best quarterbacks in the league over the last 20 years. With the Titans in full meltdown from salary cap repercussions, the Ravens were able to pry McNair away from Tennessee in 2006 for just a fourth-round draft pick.

All McNair did as Kyle Boller's replacement was win 13 games, revitalize a dormant offense and restore the Ravens to elite status.

What was his greatest contribution?

"He brought confidence to the offense," said Ravens senior vice president Kevin Byrne. "He was a great juxtaposition to Kyle in style. Kyle was an excitable, exciting athlete. Steve was very, very calm."

The NFL knew McNair was an extraordinary athlete after four spectacular years at Alcorn State. But he played in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, where anything went, except defense. Selected by the Oilers with the third pick in the 1995 draft, McNair was promising but raw.

"At Alcorn, he was undisciplined, playing in a hully-gully type offense with little or no design," said Gil Brandt, a draft analyst for NFL.com and a former draft czar for the Dallas Cowboys.

"He made people recognize you could take somebody from a small school and make a quarterback out of him if he had talent."

It was that successful conversion from small-school quarterback to big-time player that persuaded the Ravens to select Joe Flacco of Delaware in the first round of the 2008 draft.

Interestingly, Flacco was the first quarterback from Division I-AA to be drafted in the first round since McNair.

Brandt saw McNair as a playoff-caliber quarterback. McNair made it happen with his work ethic. He is one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for 30,000 yards and rush for 3,500, joining Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young.

"He was an upper-echelon quarterback," Brandt said. "If you asked if you could win a Super Bowl with him, the answer would be yes."

McNair nearly did when he took the Titans to the 2000 Super Bowl. A valiant drive to tie the game ended at the St. Louis Rams' 1-yard line, though, and he lost the biggest game he ever played in.

As just the second African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl, McNair followed the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams by 22 years. Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles was the third black quarterback to start in the game in 2004.

McNair helped pave the way for other black quarterbacks. McNabb was the second overall pick in 1999, one ahead of Akili Smith. Daunte Culpepper, from Central Florida, was the third black quarterback taken in the first round in 1999.

Then in 2001, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback taken with the first pick in the draft.

In recent years, McNair mentored Vince Young, also chosen with the third pick of the draft by the Titans in 2006, even though they didn't play together.

And McNair also had a strong influence on Troy Smith, a fifth-round choice in 2007 by the Ravens. That was McNair's final season with the Ravens and the final year of his NFL career.

Legacy?

Perhaps it was the confidence McNair instilled in his team.

Former Titans safety Blaine Bishop knew that feeling.

"The thing I will always remember about him was whether it was a good day or bad day on the field, the whole team - both offense and defense - believed he would lead us to victory if we could just get the ball in his hands at the end of the game," Bishop said.

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