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4 TENNESSEE Oilers
Michael Silver
September 01, 1997
After keeping him under wraps for most of two seasons, the Oilers have finally called upon Steve (Air) McNair to show them the way back to the playoffs, where they haven't been in three years. But the 6'2", 224-pound McNair, the third pick in the 1995 draft, can't do it alone. Someone must consistently come down with the football when McNair airs it out, someone other than tight end Frank Wycheck, who was the team's leading receiver last season with a paltry 53 catches.
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September 01, 1997

4 Tennessee Oilers

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (third in AFC Central)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

121.9(6)

193.6(21)

315.5(18)

DEFENSE

86.6(2)

201.6(13)

288.1(6)

After keeping him under wraps for most of two seasons, the Oilers have finally called upon Steve (Air) McNair to show them the way back to the playoffs, where they haven't been in three years. But the 6'2", 224-pound McNair, the third pick in the 1995 draft, can't do it alone. Someone must consistently come down with the football when McNair airs it out, someone other than tight end Frank Wycheck, who was the team's leading receiver last season with a paltry 53 catches.

That puts the onus on wideout Chris Sanders, another member of the rookie class of '95, to fulfill the potential that has been apparent since he arrived with McNair as a third-round selection from Ohio State. In his rookie year Sanders caught 35 passes, averaged a gaudy 23.5 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns, including seven in the team's final seven games. Oilers coach Jeff Fisher was so impressed that he has gone so far as to compare Sanders to Jerry Rice. Then last year some opposing defenses started treating Sanders like Rice: constant double teams. Sanders wound up with 48 catches, only four touchdowns and a strong dose of humility.

"To be the best, you've got to break those double coverages," says Sanders, who has great speed.

Two off-season changes should help Sanders get closer to his goal: assistant coach Les Steckel's promotion to offensive coordinator, replacing the fired Jerry Rhome, and McNair's elevation to starting quarterback, following the off-season trade of veteran Chris Chandler to the Falcons. While Rhome typically sent Sanders on vertical patterns up the sidelines, Steckel plans to use him on crossing routes and employ a variety of tactics (motion, three-receiver sets, breaking off patterns underneath coverage) to give the 6'1" receiver some room to operate.

McNair, who started four games last year after throwing only 80 passes in '95, and Sanders clicked immediately last season. They hooked up 21 times for 518 yards (a staggering 24.7-yard average) and three touchdowns, including an 83-yard strike in a 35-10 victory over the Jets last December.

If Sanders doesn't make it big, it won't be for lack of effort. He showed up at the Oilers' practice facility to lift weights the day after the '96 season ended. His constant off-season companion was a ball-throwing machine. He got his work ethic from his mother, who saw him through a difficult adolescence; in elementary school, Sanders says, he was suspended for throwing rocks and books at his teachers. "I work as hard as I can," he says, "because I know what real work is like, and believe me, this is a good job." In high school Sanders worked at Lowery Air Force Base in Denver, waiting tables and stacking dishes for $6.95 an hour. He worked for about the same wage cleaning pools one collegiate summer in Columbus.

Sometimes Sanders's desire gets him in trouble with Fisher. One day in practice during his rookie year, the Oilers were running a red-zone drill when Sanders dived for a ball. "Stay off the ground, Chris," Fisher barked. "The game is Sunday." Sanders apologized and stayed out of trouble until a two-minute drill at the end of practice, which he completed by making an acrobatic catch at the back of the end zone and landing on his shoulder. The players went nuts, clapping their approval. Fisher went ballistic. "What did I say before, Chris?" the coach asked.

"Don't dive," Sanders answered.

"And what did you do?" Fisher asked.

"I dove, Coach."

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