THE CAREER arcs
of quarterbacks Chris Simms and Steve McNair were poised to intersect on Sunday
at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Simms, 26,had been anointed as the
Buccaneers' franchise quarterback--"Our goal is for him to be great, not
just good," says Bucs coach Jon Gruden--and McNair, 33, was trying to
resurrect his career in Baltimore after spending the last 11 seasons with the
Titans franchise, the last few beset by injuries.
Young man rising,
older man falling. It is the natural order of things when the time is
Clearly the time
is not yet right.
validated the Ravens' plan to challenge Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC
North. He expertly dissected Tampa Bay's respected defense while efficiently
throwing for 181 yards and a touchdown in a 27--0 romp. "Steve has seen
everything," said Ravens All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden after the game.
"Nothing flusters him. Before the game, he told us, 'We're going to go out
there and make some plays. That's the way I play football. Y'all just need to
struggled. He threw for just 133 yards, with three interceptions, and emerged
with an abysmal 30.5 quarterback rating, injecting a harsh dose of reality into
the Bucs' offensive expectations.
It was a
particularly satisfying debut for McNair, who just last April was denied access
to the Titans' training facility as Tennessee tried to restructure the final
year of his deal. McNair went home to his native Mississippi, wounded and
angry. "I understand that pro football is a cutthroat business and you
should expect the worst," McNair said following practice last week.
"But after 11 years with one franchise [in Tennessee, and before that in
Houston], I never expected it to happen like that, not being able to work out
at my own facility after everything I did."
In early June he
was traded to the Ravens, reuniting him with wideout Derrick Mason, with whom
he played from 1997 to 2004, and bringing him together with All-Pro linebacker
Ray Lewis, who for years had dreamed of having McNair on the Ravens.
"Imagine if we had two leaders on this team," Lewis would tell McNair
in phone conversations. "Think about what we could do."
The late trade
meant that Ravens coach Brian Billick, offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and
quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel had to force-feed the Baltimore offense to
McNair. The quarterback spent several weeks commuting to Baltimore from his
homes in Tennessee and Mississippi, putting in classroom time five hours a day,
three days a week with the coaches when they all could have been on vacation
awaiting training camp. "He is the most unpretentious, quote-unquote,
superstar I've ever met," says Neuheisel. "He came in here and said,
'What can I do?'"
McNair has been
to a Super Bowl and has a league MVP award. He has played enough football to
quickly master a new offense, but every team has a distinct language for its
system. It's as if he were being asked, in three months, to learn to conduct
his business in Russian instead of English. "Football is football,"
says McNair, "but the verbiage is totally different. I still revert to
Tennessee language in the huddle sometimes, and the guys correct me."
Even while he was
learning the offense, his presence was enabling the Ravens to expand their
play-calling options. They now have far more scrimmage-line checkoffs that play
to McNair's experience, and they incorporate more moving pockets to utilize his
mobility. And after missing eight games in 2004 with a sternum injury and two
last year with other ailments, McNair has convinced the Ravens he's still a
dangerous passer. "When I plant my foot on a curl, I better get my head
around, because the ball is going to be there," says wideout Mark