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A lack of Air

Steve McNair has found a different kind of success

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Posted: Tuesday January 11, 2000 11:08 AM

  Steve McNair Steve McNair is slowly earning the respect of Titans fans who expected him to be an instant playmaker. Scott Halleran/Allsport

By John Donovan, CNNSI.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Back in college, when folks used to call him "Air" all the time, Steve McNair was a brash, chuck-it-around kind of guy, a quarterback with a flair for the big play and a sure-fire future as a rifle-armed NFL flinger.

A funny thing happened on the way to superstardom, though.

"Air" McNair was drafted by a team that wanted to bring him along slowly. And, unlike most other teams with promising quarterbacks, it actually has. Then there was the inevitable learning process, which took some time. Injuries took their toll. And there's always that offense.

No, things haven't turned out like Steve McNair had hoped. But that's not necessarily all bad.

"I can't understand it sometimes. People have to realize -- they have all these high expectations. People expect '"Air" McNair, he's gonna air the ball out,'" says McNair now, relaxing at the team hotel before a recent home game. "Then all of a sudden you get to an offense where they like to run the ball. And you throw one interception and it's like, 'Awww, he sucks.'

"There's a thin line between love and hate with a quarterback."

 
In an NFL season where anything goes -- and almost anything has -- the Tennessee Titans have emerged as a bonafide Super Bowl contender. CNNSI.com recently spent a week in Nashville to get an inside look at the quietest 13-3 team in football.
The Stories 
  • Home at last
  • The franchise
  • Air no more
  • A Freaking find
  • Making some noise
  • Multimedia 
    45 seconds with Eddie George 
    45 seconds with Steve McNair 
    45 seconds with Jevon Kearse 
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    McNair is not really hated in Tennessee, where he has pushed the Titans into the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (when they were still known as the Houston Oilers). But he is far from adored, as he was in college. He certainly is not the free-throwing, record-breaking crowd-pleaser he once was.

    He'll admit he hears the boos in the Titans' new stadium -- he went through a stretch of six games earlier this season in which he did not throw a single touchdown pass -- and he is amazed to keep hearing the questions about why the team's passing game has not clicked. He tries to ignore them, even if his coach doesn't get the chance.

    On a recent radio call-in show in Nashville, an irate caller grilled coach Jeff Fisher, insisting the Titans were much better with backup Neil O'Donnell behind center.

    Fisher, though he didn't show it on-air, seethes at those types of questions.

    "Our quarterback isn't perfect right now," a calmer Fisher said the next day. "But I believe he's getting better."

    There are signs that McNair is becoming the quarterback the old Oilers hoped he would when they drafted him third overall in the 1995 Draft. After the most recent McNair bashing in Nashville, he came out and threw a career-best five touchdown passes in a rout of Jacksonville.

    He finally is feeling stronger after September back surgery. A bum ankle that has limited his mobility is healing and a turf toe that has plagued him for weeks is at least not hobbling him. He showed off his new, healthy self in Week 15, when he juked the Atlanta Falcons out with a naked bootleg and ran 38 yards. The next play, he ran around the other end for a three-yard touchdown.

    His best deep threat, Yancey Thigpen, should be healthy for the playoffs. And Eddie George, the Pro Bowl running back who remains the biggest deal on this offense, is running as well as ever.

    The Class of '95
    Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair has been brought along slowly, starting only six games his first two years. Here's a look at some QBs in the '95 NFL Draft.
    Player  Pick  Team  The skinny 
    Steve McNair  1/3  Oilers  49 career starts, 50 TD passes 
    Kerry Collins  1/5  Panthers  Quit in Carolina, starter for NYG 
    Todd Collins  2/45  Bills  Former starter now KC backup 
    Kordell Stewart  2/60  Steelers  Demoted to WR in '99 
    Eric Zeir  3/84  Browns  Bumped in TB for rookie King 
    Rob Johnson  4/99  Jaguars  New starter in Buffalo 
    Steve Stentstrom  4/134  Chiefs  Sometime starter in San Fran 
    Craig Whelihan  6/197  Chargers  Pushed aside for Ryan Leaf 
    Pick=Round/Overall
    Team=Team that drafted player
     

    All of the talk surrounding him this season is a source of semi-wonder for McNair who, it should be pointed out, is 9-2 as a starter. He has come to realize that, for many people, winning is not enough.

    And he knows that, like it or not, the Titans' offense is not the Minnesota Vikings'.

    "Where I come from [McNair set all sorts of passing records at Alcorn State], we've always been explosive. We were throwing the ball regardless of what defenses came up with," he says. "That's what I want to get to here, to where we can strike at any time on any portion of the field.

    "I'm just as frustrated as the fans sometimes," he says. "But I don't go out and criticize people, I don't criticize the coaches, because their gameplan is gonna help this ballteam win."

    There has been some speculation that, with McNair healthy and coming off a big game against the Jaguars, it may be time to open up the offense. Fisher says he hasn't held back McNair at all and that, if anything, the Titans are doing too much with him.

    Whatever, it's tough to argue with the success the Titans have had this season. Even if it's not "Air" McNair running the team.


     
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