The Air Up There: McNair May Not Be Finished Writing His Legacy

By Thom Loverro
Updated: January 2, 2007

BALTIMORE — It wasn’t a defining performance, but watching Steve McNair yesterday in the Ravens’ 19-7 win over the Buffalo Bills, a win that gave Baltimore a first-round bye in the playoffs and at least one home game, it was hard not to get the feeling the playoffs are going to make the quarterback’s legacy.

It didn’t look like McNair would get that chance again. It seemed as if his glory would remain on the 1-yard line at the Georgia Dome, where Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson as time expired in the Tennessee Titans’ 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams in January 2000 at Super Bowl XXXIV.

The Titans never made it back to the game in McNair’s final five years there. He was unceremoniously asked to leave after last season. Tennessee officials believed the 33-year-old McNair’s best football was behind him after 12 years in the NFL and that his body was breaking down from being so tough under center and taking so many hits over the years.

Even after McNair was traded to the Ravens, questions remained about his ability to stay healthy over an entire season. He had missed 10 starts over his last two seasons in Tennessee, and that doesn’t even take into account all the games he played injured when other quarterbacks might not have been able to take the field. The last leg and back injuries appeared to finish him and make him too vulnerable a target for hits.

Had his career ended there, his legacy would be as a talented, gusty quarterback who never quite made it to that elite class, the Hall of Famers.

But the McNair story is not finished, though he is always one hit away from the conclusion that seemed written for him when he was cast off by the Titans. There is every reason to believe the upcoming playoffs will be Steve McNair’s stage.

In the week leading up to Sunday’s game, McNair said he wasn’t even playing as well as he had in 2005 in Tennessee (and actually, he has the same amount of touchdown passes with 16 and one more interception with 12).

And he said that after he threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago.

“It’s all about repetition, getting used to the offense and getting as confident as I was in Tennessee,” McNair said. “That time will come.”

Yes, it will. And this is McNair’s time. In any playoff season in almost any sport, defense wins, and the Ravens, who finished 13-3, have a defense no one wants to face.

The San Diego Chargers may be the top seed in the AFC, but if there was a list of teams players would least like to face in the playoffs, the Ravens would be at the top. They are so good that, to be honest, they have looked bored the past three weeks and still won all three.

Sunday, with less than three minutes to go in the game and a 19-7 lead, Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman managed to complete a 52-yard pass to Lee Evans (both Evans and Baltimore’s Dawan Landry came down with the ball at the same time, but the receiver retained possession), giving the Bills first-and-goal on the 4-yard line.

It was as if the defense took that as an insult. On the next play, cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted a goal-line pass and ran it back 44 yards before being knocked out of bounds.

What aids this defense and makes this Ravens team even more dangerous than the one for the 2000 Super Bowl champions is ball control.

The Ravens held the ball the first eight minutes of the game and had it for a total of 36 minutes. McNair calmly ran the offense. In that first-quarter drive, McNair completed seven of seven passes. For the game, he completed 23 of 35 passes for 216 yards.

The Ravens didn’t score any offensive touchdowns. Their points came on four Matt Stover field goals and an 31-yard interception return by Chris McAlister.

But the offense was operating without two starting linemen, Jonathan Ogden and Kendrick Vincent, both of whom sat out as a precaution because of injuries. The Ravens still managed to function under McNair’s direction well enough to win.

McNair won’t say the path before him could be his legacy, but he must realize the success of this particular Ravens team, no matter how great the defense, will be laid at his feet.

And after being written off by his old team and others around the NFL, it must be a driving force for someone with as much pride as McNair.

When asked about his own expectations before the season, McNair said Sunday, “My expectation is all about the ballclub. Whatever it takes for me to get this ballclub going, that’s what I am going to do.”

“It’s not like I expected to come in and dominate. No, this is a team effort. With this offense here, it is all about ball control and getting the ball in the right people’s hands, and we’ve done that so far.”

McNair went over 30,000 career passing yards in Sunday’s win, putting him in a small class of quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young who have run for 3,500 yards and passed for 30,000.

When told of the achievement, Ravens coach Brian Billick said, “I wish I was around for the first 29,500 or whatever it is.” Billick should wait a few weeks.

If McNair stays healthy, the best may be yet to come.