Showing some of his old college flair, Steve McNair rallied the Titans over the Bengals
Last Saturday morning, outside a meeting room at the Titans' training complex in suburban Nashville, offensive coordinator Les Steckel and quarterback coach Bart Andrus stood quietly, cocking their heads toward the open door. Inside, fifth-year quarterback Steve McNair was running his first game-plan meeting with his wideouts, tight ends and backs. He went over each of the 45 pass plays, stressing to the receivers how he wanted them to run their routes. Coach Jeff Fisher, whose idea it was to give the quiet McNair more control over his domain, walked up to Steckel and whispered, "How's he doing?"
"Fine," a smiling Steckel replied softly. "Just fine."
On Sunday against the Bengals, the coaching staff's confidence in McNair paid off. He completed 21 of 32 passes for a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score. Not that McNair's big day wasn't without disappointment. If Tennessee hadn't blown so many scoring chances, it could have led 43-7 instead of 26-21 at the half. With five minutes to go the Titans trailed by nine, but they rallied for a 36-35 win.
Along the way McNair was booed twice after committing turnovers. "Doesn't seem right, does it?" said the quiet native of Mount Olive, Miss., who was a bit downcast after the win. "There are a lot of things I understand, but that's not one of them."
The then Houston Oilers drafted McNair out of Alcorn State with the third pick in the 1995 draft, and Fisher decided to play McNair sparingly his first two pro seasons rather than throw him to the wolves. But when McNair finally got a chance to play full time in '97 and '98, the club didn't take off the kid gloves. The Oilers turned Titans may have drafted the man with the tools to be the next John Elway, but through four seasons they looked as if they had ended up with the next Rich Gannon. Though he threw only 10 interceptions last year, McNair averaged just 6.56 yards per attempt, drawing criticism for not throwing downfield enough.
"I had a lot of high expectations entering the NFL, about throwing the ball 40 times a game," McNair said last Saturday. "But the coaches decided to have a move-the-chains offense."
Right after he said that, McNair left to run the meeting. Looking on his game sheet at the first pass play, a go-route up the right sideline to wideout Yancey Thigpen, McNair said, "Yancey, on single coverage I expect you to win, and if you do, you're getting the ball. Let's capitalize on their young secondary." Then McNair turned to tight end Frank Wycheck. "If Yancey can't win it, you've got the middle—and I'm looking at you."
On the first play of Tennessee's season, Thigpen sprinted past rookie corner Charles Fisher. Before a rainbow from McNair arrived, Fisher tackled Thigpen. The result: pass interference and a 17-yard gain. The Titans drove 70 yards in four plays capped by McNair's one-yard touchdown run; they threw on six of their first seven plays and, just like that, McNair was unleashed.
When he saw a reporter after the game, Jeff Fisher asked jokingly, "So who was he today—Elway or Gannon?" Elway. For one game, at least.