Steve McNair versus Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl.
As quarterback matchups go, it’s not exactly John Elway against Brett Favre, Roger Staubach against Terry Bradshaw.
A year ago, McNair and Warner would have been lucky to get tickets to a Super Bowl. Five months ago, they couldn’t get roster spots in some fantasy leagues.
But at least Warner goes into Sunday’s game having established solid credentials this season for the St. Louis Rams. After stepping in for the injured Trent Green in the exhibition season, Warner broke all sorts of club records in passing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns while accumulating a 109.2 passer rating.
The Tennessee Titans’ McNair?
It depends on which one you’re talking about: Barely There McNair, Air McNair or Dare McNair.
Barely There McNair
When it comes to the passing game, that’s a fair label.
In a season in which he sat out five games because of back surgery, McNair the passer struggled in a run-oriented offense, passing for 2,179 yards and 12 touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and finishing with a less-than-impressive 78.6 passer rating.
But when McNair hangs onto the ball and takes off, good things seem to happen.
He ran for 337 yards and scored eight touchdowns rushing, most by a quarterback. In games McNair ran for a touchdown, the Titans were 9-0.
So he has become a quarterback with great legs, but no arm, basically a running back who goes deep only when he runs out of other options. And his best option is to give the ball to running back Eddie George and get out of the way.
Run this image past McNair and he shrugs it off, the way he shrugs off tacklers. He’ll be playing in the Super Bowl. Favre, Peyton Manning, Jeff George and all the other hotshot quarterbacks are sitting home.
“I don’t get into all that,” McNair said. “I’m not going to put added pressure on myself by listening to the negative things that are said. I’m not worried about proving a point.”
People who disparage McNair’s passing skills apparently forget that he was once Air McNair. That was at Alcorn State, a Division I-AA school in Mississippi, where he wound up when one college recruiter after another told him that he was a defensive back.
Oh, he was a defensive back all right. Good enough at Mississippi’s Mount Olive High to have pulled down a state-record-tying 30 interceptions, 15 his senior season.
So it’s understandable that colleges wanted McNair to play defensive back. But they couldn’t shake his resolve to be a quarterback.
“That’s what I wanted to play,” he said. “That’s where my heart has been all along. Since I was a little kid, I wanted to play quarterback. I wasn’t going to let anybody or anything change that. . . . I had the opportunity to play defensive back at many big colleges, such as Notre Dame and Miami, but I didn’t feel that was my best position to show my skills to the people around the country. . . . So I went somewhere where they would let me be a quarterback.”
At Alcorn State, they let him follow his heart and had no regrets. McNair became the first player in NCAA history to surpass 16,000 yards in total offense, finishing his college career with 16,823. He completed 55.5% of his passes for 14,496 yards and 119 touchdowns, with 58 interceptions. He set an NCAA record by averaging 8.18 yards a pass, finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy in his senior year and earned that nickname, Air McNair.
Of course, doing it at a small college is one thing. Doing it in the NFL is another.
After having been selected third in the 1995 draft by the then-Houston Oilers, McNair backed up Chris Chandler his first two seasons, then struggled through his first year as a starter. His 14 touchdown passes were offset by 13 interceptions and he had only a 70.4 passer rating. He was up to only 80.1 last season, then dropped a bit this season.
Part of the problem is that he’s in an offense that might prompt many quarterbacks to call their agents in panic. Tennessee’s ball-control system was devised by offensive coordinator Les Steckel to take advantage of George’s power and the offensive line’s consistency. That means there are days when McNair is not called on to pass much, robbing him of his rhythm.
And that can be tough. Most quarterbacks can talk all they want about team effort and winning games. But the only thing they like better than seeing a wide-open receiver downfield is seeing a stat sheet that shows they passed for 350 yards and four touchdowns.
Asking Dan Marino to pass only 20 to 25 times a game is like asking Mark McGwire to bunt.
“It was very frustrating at first,” McNair acknowledged. “But Coach [Jeff] Fisher set me down and filled me in on what his style of play is. It was a tremendous change from throwing for 4,000 yards a year in college and throwing at least 40 to 50 times a game. . . . But it’s something we have to do as a team because of the great running back we have in Eddie George. . . . When you have two great athletes in the backfield, you have to share the ball.”
How deeply has McNair bought into the program?
“He is very selfless,” said tight end Frank Wycheck, McNair’s favorite target with 69 catches. “He doesn’t care about statistics. He doesn’t care about how we win, just as long as we win. The fact that he doesn’t put up Hall of Fame numbers doesn’t matter to him.”
Television analyst Joe Theismann, who played in two Super Bowls for the Washington Redskins, is a McNair fan.
“Sure he has an ego,” Theismann said. “But he knows that he is one of two starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. That’s pretty good for your ego.
“Steve understands what he has to do. He knows that it doesn’t say on your Super Bowl ring, ‘Completed 18 of 25 for 300 yards.’ It says ‘World Champions.’ He has not only accepted his role on the team. He has embraced it.”
Said Steckel: “Heck, we just want to win. I think Steve has bought into it.”
And instead of being a quarterback with questionable numbers and a questionable future, he’s a Super Bowl starter with the chance to showcase his running ability.
In the AFC championship game, McNair’s tackle-breaking 51-yard run, followed by a one-yard burst across the goal line in the fourth quarter, finished off the Jacksonville Jaguars.
McNair’s limited passing success has resulted in Dare McNair, a game plan in which the opposition plants eight men on the line to stop George and dares McNair to beat them through the air.
And occasionally he has. In the season opener, he passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. In a late-season game against the Jaguars, he passed for five touchdowns.
Does he ever get jealous when he sees other quarterbacks pass for 350 or 400 yards?
“Did they win or lose?” he said. “That’s the question. You can throw for 350 or 400 yards and lose.”
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Air, Ground McNair
Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair’s regular-season statistics. He sat out five games because of a back injury:
Completion percentage: .565
Passing yards: 2,179
Yards per carry: 4.7