QB Steve McNair showed off his full range of skills during an excellent preseason with his new team
Steve McNair broke out of the pocket to his right, only to find Tyoka Jackson steaming into his path.
It was November 8, 1998, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trying to complete a comeback against the Tennessee Titans and get over .500 in a disappointingly up-and-down season. The Bucs had scored to close within two, 24-22, and with a little less than two minutes left had McNair and the Titans in a third-and-eight hole at the Tennessee 29. The Bucs brought a ferocious rush, as they were wont to do in long third downs. McNair was flushed. Jackson was in pursuit.
The Bucs almost had McNair. Of course, that's a bit like almost catching a bullet with your teeth.
Unfortunately, McNair cut inside Jackson and cut the heart out of the Bucs' 1998 season. Amazingly, the big but lithe quarterback didn't just escape trouble, he escaped everybody, rambling a career-long 71 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. The Bucs would go on to lose three straight and eventually finish one game out of the playoffs.
So, when Derrick Brooks says he has respected McNair's abilities for a long time, he means it.
Only a few Buc defenders remain from that game, but a few more would remember the 2001 Bucs-Titans game in which the visiting Tampa Bay team actually completed a stunning comeback, only to lose 31-28 in overtime. McNair threw for 230 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score in that game. He didn't play when the Bucs and the then-Houston Oilers met in 1995, but McNair was there. He and Brooks were both rookies.
So the Bucs have had plenty of years to learn respect for McNair. But that's somewhat the issue with the Baltimore Ravens' new signal-caller, isn't it? The Titans cut ties with McNair, in a somewhat messy manner, perhaps thinking it was time to replace the 33-year-old stalwart who had missed 10 games over the last two years due to injuries. Tennessee, in fact, drafted Texas quarterback Vince Young with the third overall pick.
The Ravens, who won a Super Bowl in 2000 but have really never solidified their quarterback position or formed a very frightening pass attack, were only too happy to take on McNair for the price of a fourth-round draft pick. Critical evaluation was mixed, but the Ravens were thrilled, and McNair's preseason performance only increased their delight. He completed 35 of 46 passes (76.1%) for 335 yards, one touchdown and one interception. And, yes, he ran for another score.
The Bucs, too, believe the Ravens made a good decision.
"I think he's come in and given the offense a tremendous boost of confidence," said Brooks. "The Ravens' team has been so defensive-driven these past few years, and I think Steve brings a weapon there, an air of confidence. He's had success in this league that the offensive players can gravitate to and rally around."
The Ravens haven't ranked higher than 21st in the NFL in offense since 2001 and haven't ranked higher than 14th since 1997. If their new quarterback plays like the McNair of old, however, that unit suddenly looks formidable. The offensive line, anchored by Jonathan Ogden, is strong. Todd Heap is one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league. Derrick Mason has excelled with McNair before, and Mark Clayton was the league's best rookie receiver in 2005. Jamal Lewis, Mike Anderson and Musa Smith give the Ravens a trio of power rushers.
"I think having him there has really enhanced the weapons they already have," said Brooks. "You could tell in the preseason that they seem to be playing with a lot more energy on offense. He's making his plays and he's really stepped into a leadership role for them already."
To Buccaneer defenders, McNair's arrival has transformed the Ravens' offense.
"He is a big time threat, and he has that added dimension that you really just can't get out of just your average quarterback," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "He brings that rare ability where you are always going to have a Super Bowl contender. You can always think playoffs. You are going to be able to dream big when a quarterback like that is in your offense."
Plenty of quarterbacks have continued to succeed long after their 33rd birthdays. McNair may have played a particularly physical style of quarterback over his 131 career starts, but he's only a few years removed from one of his greatest seasons. In 2003, McNair played in and started 14 games, compiling a career-high passer rating of 100.4 for the 12-4 Titans. He completed 62.5% of his passes, threw for 3,215 yards, offset 24 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions, ran for four touchdowns and was sacked only 19 times.
The Bucs expect that Steve McNair on Sunday. They expect the one they've respected for many years as a prime opponent.
"Winner, great competitor," said Gruden, who then paused to search for another pair of descriptors for McNair, before returning to the same thought. "Winner, great competitor. You could say that over and over. I've been a big fan of Steve's for a long time.
"He's a winner, and he's a great competitor, there's no question."