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 right.
Clearly the time is not yet right.
McNair's play 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 follow me.'"
Simms, meanwhile, 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 Clayton.