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TOUGH Customer
Michael Silver
November 17, 2003
Playing with courage and unwavering confidence, Titans quarterback Steve McNair is making a case that he's the league's MVP
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November 17, 2003

Tough Customer

Playing with courage and unwavering confidence, Titans quarterback Steve McNair is making a case that he's the league's MVP

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OFFENSE

POS.

PLAYER, TEAM

VOTES

WR

Randy Moss, Vikings

16

WR

Torry Holt, Rams

11

TE

Todd Heap, Ravens

7

T

Jonathan Ogden, Ravens

15

T

William Roaf, Chiefs

8

G

Steve Hutchinson, Seahawks

9

G

Will Shields, Chiefs

7

C

Matt Birk, Vikings

6

QB

Steve McNair, Titans

14

RB

Jamal Lewis, Ravens

10

FB

Fred Beasley, 49ers

4

DEFENSE

POS.

PLAYER, TEAM

VOTES

DE

Mike Rucker, Panthers

7

DE

Dwight Freeney, Colts

5

DT

Kris Jenkins, Panthers

12

DT

Richard Seymour, Patriots

6

MLE

Ray Lewis, Ravens

11

OLB

Derrick Brooks, Bucs

7

OLB

Keith Bulluck, Titans

7

CB

Patrick Surtain, Dolphins

11

CB

Champ Bailey, Redskins

9

SS

Corey Chavous, Vikings

6

FS

Roy Williams, Cowboys

10

SPECIALISTS

POS.

PLAYER, TEAM

VOTES

K

Mike Vanderjagt, Colts

11

P

Shane Lechler, Raiders

11

PR

Dante Hall, Chiefs

18

KR

Dante Hall, Chiefs

10

AWARDS

MVP: McNair

14

Coach: Bill Parcells, Cowboys

8

Executive: Carl Peterson, Chiefs

4

Offensive Rookie: Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals

14

Defensive Rookie: Nick Barnett, LB, Packers

5

Needles do not scare Steve McNair, a man whose heroics on the football field have been made possible by IV lines and pain-killing injections. So at halftime on Sunday, when the Tennessee Titans' gritty quarterback was told by team doctors that he'd need three stitches to close a gash on his chin, McNair did not flinch. Having already staked the Titans to a three-touchdown lead in their AFC showdown with the Miami Dolphins, McNair stoically assumed his familiar reclining position on the training table. "Patch me up, Doc," the 30-year-old McNair said, sounding like Marshal Matt Dillon or one of the other gunslingers he watches religiously on late-night TV. Ninety minutes later, after Tennessee (7-2) had sewed up a 31-7 victory over Miami and moved into a first-place tie with the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, 68,809 fans left The Coliseum with an impression of McNair that is rapidly spreading through the NFL—that he is fearless and peerless. "He's the MVP, no question," Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau said as he trudged off the field. "He's so comfortable now, and that's causing headaches for the whole league."

Because he so routinely plays with pain—since becoming a starter in 1997, McNair has had back, chest, finger, thumb, shin, head, shoulder, knee and toe injuries—the mild-mannered Mississippi-an is becoming a mythical figure in a sport in which the athletes pride themselves on playing hurt. In McNair's words, "I'm not about to let my team down. My motto has always been that you never let them see that you're hurt."

Alas, McNair doesn't live up to that credo when he's in the cozy confines of his suburban Nashville house. "He might be tough when it comes to football, but he's a big baby at home," says Steve's wife, Mechelle. "Believe me, I see how hurt he is. It's, 'Honey, can you bring me this? Can you get me that? Can you give me a rub?' He'll be limping, grimacing, complaining all week, saying there's no way he'll play, and then I'll see him on Sunday running around like nothing's wrong."

Until recently McNair's Sunday best has been largely overlooked outside of Tennessee. Though he has won more games since the start of the 1999 season than any other quarterback (chart, page 61), McNair has never played in the Pro Bowl—named an alternate in 2000, he was extended a late invitation as an injury replacement but declined because of a shoulder problem—and last year finished 10th among AFC passers in the fans' voting. Earlier this season Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress referred to McNair as "the most underrated player in the league, bar none."

On Sunday, against Miami's highly regarded defense, all of his talents were on display. McNair, who completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, connected with seven receivers and didn't turn the ball over, as the Titans broke the 30-point barrier for the sixth straight game. He threw picturesque passes, including a 46-yard strike to Derrick Mason, his favorite target, on Tennessee's fourth play from scrimmage, and patiently delivered the ball on underneath patterns that resulted in first-half touchdown passes to wideouts Tyrone Calico and Justin McCareins.

Folks in Music City have grown accustomed to such virtuoso performances. "Trust me, this is nothing new," running back Eddie George says of McNair's play in 2003, including a league-best 107.3 passer rating. "If you haven't been watching, that's your fault, because you've missed out on some special things."

After a record-setting career at Division I-AA Alcorn State, McNair was drafted with the third pick in 1995, by the Houston Oilers (who moved to Tennessee two years later), but was brought along slowly by Houston coach Jeff Fisher. When he became a full-time starter in 1997, McNair was feared more for his scrambling ability than his passing. Buoyed by Fisher's unwavering support, however, McNair blossomed in '99 after he returned from early-season back surgery and guided the Titans to the AFC title. He was a revelation in the final minutes of Tennessee's Super Bowl XXXIV loss to the St. Louis Rams, as he came within a yard of finishing off what would have been one of the most dramatic game-tying drives in NFL history.

Still, even in Nashville, the chiseled 6'2" 235-pounder couldn't shake the skeptics. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Titans' 2000 home opener, McNair left the field on a cart after suffering a severely bruised sternum, and backup Neil O'Donnell entered the game to loud applause. "Steve heard that as he was going up the tunnel," Fisher recalls, "and it was overwhelming."

Tennessee next faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and McNair, still having trouble breathing, replaced an injured O'Donnell late in the fourth quarter and marched the Titans to a game-winning touchdown. He has been moving up the NFL's food chain ever since, becoming a wiser, more accurate passer while replacing the battle-scarred George as the team's offensive focal point.

Last season, after Tennessee slogged to a 1-4 start, McNair "took over the team," Fisher says. The Titans rebounded to win 10 of their last 11 regular-season games and advanced to the AFC Championship Game, even though McNair was unable to practice from before Thanksgiving until after New Year's Day because of a badly strained rib cage. Unable to throw pregame passes of more than 10 yards, McNair took a pain-killing injection before Tennessee's pivotal Dec. 1 road game against the New York Giants. The shot began to wear off during the third quarter, but McNair (30 of 43, 334 yards, three touchdowns) pressed on, overcoming a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit, forcing overtime by running for a two-point conversion and completing three of four passes for 47 yards to set up Joe Nedney's game-winning field goal.

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