Sometimes a quarterback, through sheer force of will, unites and rallies a team around him. The Titans' Steve McNair, battling injuries and playing with remarkable courage and intensity, did so this year, and the only statistic that reflects it is his team's 10-5 record. McNair is the quarterback on my All-Pro team, even though Pro Bowl voters all but ignored him.
Three 49ers are on the offense. Fullback Fred Beasley, who was always a punishing blocker, is the game's premier short-yardage big back. Derrick Deese, one of the smaller tackles in the game at 289 pounds, has been one of the most tenacious. And wideout Terrell Owens, whose big-play ability is unmatched, carries San Francisco's passing attack.
I've picked a pair of Chiefs from assistant coach Mike Solari's finely tuned offensive line: tackle William Roaf, who's enjoying yet another renaissance following his off-season trade from New Orleans, and center Casey Wiegmann, whose mobility and range are big reasons why my running back, Priest Holmes, was the league's leading rusher until getting hurt on Dec. 15. In a season in which almost every team had a runner who put up big numbers, no club had anyone to match Holmes, the key man on the NFL's highest-scoring offense.
Todd Heap, who was simply unstoppable in some games, is the choice at tight end. And, of course, the Colts' Marvin Harrison, the single-season-record holder, is a lock at the other wideout spot.
Finally, both guards, the Steelers' Alan Faneca and the Eagles' Jermane Mayberry, are strictly sock-it-to-'em guys, leading running games that are at their best when they're banging straight ahead.
Defense is the province of the Buccaneers, who fill three spots on my unit. End Simeon Rice has always been a gifted pass rusher, but in his two years with Tampa Bay he has taken the run seriously. Outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, now recovered from injuries that slowed him last season, is the game's premier weakside backer, and Ronde Barber is the finest corner I've seen this season.
The Dolphins' Jason Taylor is a relentless rusher from his right end spot, often beating the double team with his speed. Vikings tackle Chris Hovan gets off the ball so quickly that he appears to be offside, but he is also technically gifted against the run. Raiders tackle Rod Coleman wears a linebacker's number (57) and often doesn't start, but after the preliminaries are over and the battle is on, he takes the field and seldom leaves it, because he is the best interior pass rusher in the game.
The Steelers' Joey Porter is my rush linebacker, in the old LT mold, and with Ray Lewis on the shelf, the Bears' far-ranging Brian Urlacher has the middle linebacker position to himself. The Eagles' hyperactive Brian Dawkins is a repeater at free safety, and at strong safety Tony Parrish did a great job of keeping the Niners' secondary together during rough times. Dale Carter got all the publicity in the New Orleans secondary, but Fred Thomas, playing injured at times, is the real ball-hawking cornerback.
My kicker, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri, is virtually the statistical twin of the Eagles' David Akers, but I'll give it to Vinatieri on the strength of his 57-yarder against the Bears. The numbers speak most loudly for our punter, the Panthers' Todd Sauerbrun. The Saints' Michael Lewis has been dramatic as a punt and kick returner. Our special teams choice is the Jets' Jerald Sowed, a guided missile as a blocker on the wedge and a big reason why New York has the AFC leaders in kick and punt returns.