On McNair in the clutch, mentoring and his tepee

July, 6, 2009
7/06/09
11:40
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Some thoughts on Steve McNair as I return from vacation and catch up on developments.

Clutch: McNair often played his best in the game's biggest moments. The Titans worked a lot on two-minute drills in practice, but it was McNair's ability to go away from the script and freelance that helped earn him a reputation as being clutch. I'll try to track down some numbers to illustrate just how good he was when halftime or the final whistle approached.

 
  Wade Payne/Icon SMI
  Steve McNair served as a mentor to younger quarterbacks such as Billy Volek.

As I write this, Eddie George is talking about McNair in two-minute drills on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville:

"He never showed any sign of panic. Steve was always in control, always well aware ... He had such a command, and he knew what to do and where to go with the ball ... It was a beautiful thing to watch."

[Updated, 12:27 p.m.:] This from the Titans on McNair's late-game heroics: "In all, he led 19 drives during his Titans career in which the team tied the game or took the lead with a score either inside the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime. There were 21 occasions, including three playoff contests, he rallied the Titans to victory from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. The three aforementioned cases had another commonality: Due to various injuries, McNair was listed as questionable to play in the games."

Mentoring: The Houston Oilers drafted McNair with every intention of having him sit and learn for a couple of years. The starter ahead of him in 1995 and 1996, Chris Chandler, was not particularly interested in serving as a top aide to the guy in line to take over his job. (To his credit, Chandler said in the buildup to Super Bowl XXXIII, in which he quarterbacked Atlanta, that he should have handled it differently.)

McNair may have been destined to be different even without what happened, or didn't happen, with Chandler. But through his career, McNair was generous with his time and help with young backups like Kevin Daft and Billy Volek and camp guys like Ron Powlus. He also had healthy relationships with veteran backups like Dave Krieg and Neil O'Donnell.

MVP: He won the MVP award in 2003 along with Peyton Manning based as much on the respect he'd earned among the voters as his performance that season when measured against the man he shared the honor with.

McNair was excellent that season, posting his best passer rating (100.4, 10 points higher than his next best in 2001). But side-by-side with Manning the numbers tilted in the Indy quarterback's direction -- he was better in completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns and interceptions. McNair and the Titans lost both head-to-head matchups with Manning and the Colts that year and tailed off some at the end; McNair missed two of the last three games with ankle and calf injuries.

I always had mixed feelings as to whether it was a good thing that those with a ballot decided to reward McNair nonetheless. McNair as MVP could be taken as a victory for intangibles, toughness and leadership -- but those are qualities Manning certainly has in great quantity as well.

Napping: Some guys habitually throw up before a game. John Henderson liked to get slapped in the face. McNair napped, and it became the singular example of his calm. In a new stadium on the road, it was part of the routine that the equipment guys would stake out a nap setting that would be met with McNair's approval.

When the Titans got bad in his final two years, I thought he might have served the team better to change his routine and spend more pregame time throwing to young receivers who needed to develop. As an established guy, however, it was understandable that his Sunday routine -- which has led to a lot of great play -- was something he didn't feel compelled to alter.

Unflappable: It wasn't just that he was calm and poised. McNair didn't get bent out of shape over much.

He was in line to be the face of the franchise as its first quarterback in Nashville, but was booed by the sellout crowd on opening day against Cincinnati in 1999 when he shook off an ankle injury and returned to the game.

In a game the Titans should have finished much more easily, he ultimately positioned the team for a 33-yard Al Del Greco field goal that won the game, 36-35, with 12 seconds left.

McNair's final line: 21-of-32 for 341 yards, three touchdown passes and an interception; six carries for 27 yards and another touchdown along with a lost fumble.

Nashville felt guilty in the following days, with some fans putting up apologetic signs outside the team's facility and others chipping in to have a plane fly over practice pulling a banner with a supportive message.

Funny: I wish I could find what I wrote for The Tennessean at the time, but my single best example of McNair's good humor and laid-back brand of fun came before a practice at the team's temporary facility in 1997 or 1998.

Before practice he built a tepee out of blocking bags and mats, and he sat inside, largely unnoticed by teammates heading out for their pre-practice stretch, making noises to suggest he was in deep meditation in his homemade sanctuary.

I expect as the week unfolds I will revisit and expand on some of these themes and find some others to discuss.

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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