AFC South: Jerry Rhome
|Steve McNair saw limited time at quarterback in his rookie season in 1995, giving him time to hone his craft.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Steve McNair might be the last big quarterback drafted in the first round out of a historically black college, Len Pasquarelli wrote Monday.
The former Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens quarterback, who was shot and killed on Saturday, also might be one of the last quarterbacks drafted high to benefit from a team's plan to bring him along slowly.
As a rookie in 1995 with the then-Houston Oilers, he sat the first 12 games except for two series of mop-up action in one game. In the first 27 games of his career, McNair had one start. Then he took over as the lead guy.
But more and more, giving a young quarterback time to observe early-on is a luxury teams simply can't afford.
A team that spends a top-10 pick on a quarterback has made a huge financial investment. He's a guy expected to turn the team around. He's probably lined up as the franchise's top marketing tool. And the possibility of having a quality veteran willing to take on a short-term job ahead of him is lower now, as there are typically plenty of teams offering better opportunity.
And, of course, if a team waits on the kid, it could wind up developing a guy who will move on as a free agent and play his best football somewhere else. Or the team puts itself in a position to have to make a decision on a second contract before it knows exactly what it has.
The Titans intended to bring Vince Young along in a fashion similar to the one they utilized with McNair. An 0-5 start in 2006 and a nudge from the team's owner changed that, but ultimately the job proved too much for Young and the Titans turned to Kerry Collins.
"I think times have changed and you'd want to see him play sooner," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of the likelihood a high pick ever gets the sort of developmental plan McNair got. "We clearly had a plan and that was to bring him along slowly. But it's hard to say, they are all different. ...
"We may have been to the Super Bowl in , who knows if Steve had played earlier. But you won't see that approach again in this day and age."
Jerry Rhome, the Oilers' offensive coordinator for McNair's first two years with the club, said the young quarterback handled the apprentice period well.
"He was not ready to play.... Jumping from Alcorn State to the NFL, that's a heck of a jump even though he had a lot of ability," Rhome said. "It was a really good situation, a luxury where you could let him bide his time and to get better and better. I don't think there is any doubt, if you've got the luxury, it's going to help the quarterback. That's not a bad thing at all. If you're in dire need, that may be a different ball game."
Rhome said that while Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore came out and did well as rookies last year, both had spent five years in college and had experience at major programs -- Ryan at BC, Flacco at Pittsburgh before he transferred to Delaware.
By design, the 1995-96 Oilers had a quarterback they were comfortable starting while McNair watched.
Chris Chandler played some good football for them those two seasons, but later admitted he didn't approach the mentoring aspect of his job as he should have. The unflappable McNair never seemed to let that bother him, and he went on to be especially kind to young quarterbacks who were on the roster during his career.
Brad Hopkins played left tackle for McNair's Oilers and Titans, protecting the quarterback's blindside. He thought the franchise's approach with McNair early on really helped set him on the right course.
"Have you seen these young quarterbacks falling by the wayside?" Hopkins asked. "Do you know why they are? Because the pressure is immense for young quarterbacks to get in and respond when they don't have the maturity level to do that. We expect Vince Young to come in here and perform at a Brett Favre-type level when he just put away his Texas Longhorns helmet.
"It's just not going to happen. Because not only is it a physical process, it's a mental process to be able to grasp the pressures of being an NFL quarterback. For [McNair] to have two years watching other quarterbacks grow and make mistakes, that definitely [helped] his career. It made him a better person. Because here he is, knowing he's not capable of leading this team and accepting that, waiting his time, waiting his turn and then taking advantage of it once it got there."
One extra: Doug Farrar crunched McNair's numbers for The Washington Post and concluded his body of work is most similar to those of Phil Simms, Steve Bartkowski and Jim Kelly.
When the president and CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes kneels to pray in his office, he does so on a thick blue rectangular pad that's about 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep.
|AP Photo/Larry Salzman|
|Les Steckel, Steve McNair's coordinator from 1997-1999, nicknamed the quarterback "Silk."|
McNair had surgery that year because of a ruptured disc, missing five games but returning to lead the team on a run to the franchise's lone Super Bowl.
The former Houston/Tennessee and Baltimore quarterback was shot and killed on Saturday. Since the terrible news spread, old teammates, coaches and others who knew McNair have been reminiscing as they try to come to terms with his passing.
As an Oiler and Titan, McNair played for four coordinators: Jerry Rhome, Les Steckel, Mike Heimerdinger and Norm Chow. Heimerdinger has since returned to the post.
Monday, Rhome, Steckel and Chow took some time to talk about the hard-nosed signal caller who was widely respected for his humble personality as well as his strong arm, excellent mobility and ability to produce on Sundays even when injuries sidelined him for practices.
Rhome held the job for the team's final two seasons in Houston, 1995-1996. McNair, who was drafted third overall in '95, missed the bulk of training camp as a rookie while his contract was being ironed out and was way behind. But he showed a real commitment to football in the early months of 1996.
"He came in four days a week for about three, three-and-a-half hours to my office, February all the way to May," said Rhome, who got a "yes" from McNair anytime he asked him to visit with underprivileged kids. "I would teach him and I'd test him. Then we'd go out on the field and work. He was a very hard worker, made up a whole lot of ground and learned a lot that spring. ... That was the beginning of Steve McNair and pro ball."
Steckel called McNair "Silk," because when his sons once called their father's attention to McNair in an Alcorn State game on TV, Steckel's review after four or five plays was that the "kid is smooth as silk."
"I've never seen an athlete like that," Steckel said.
Just as he had private work with Rhome, McNair had a lot of one-on-one time with Steckel.
"Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, he would be at our house, having dinner and we'd be talking football and looking at film," Steckel said of the spring of 1997. "We watched tape, and then we would set up drills behind these high hedges there in Houston, where nobody could see us work out or bother us, and we'd work out a couple hours, just he and I against the air, and eventually we'd bring in a receiver or two. Just to see his incredible athleticism take shape was pure joy as a coach. I mean, nothing is greater than working with great athletes getting better. And that's what happened with Steve."
Amid all the talk of McNair's toughness, Steckel might have a broader context in which to classify it: He spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and said he's been around "some very strong and tough, warrior kind of people."
"But I've never seen a body built like his where he just had the highest threshold of pain," Steckel said. "I was told he once did a root canal without medication, I still struggle with that one, but somebody swore to that."
Steckel said the only player he'd been connected with who qualified in McNair's class as a physically tough football player was O.J. Simpson.
While Rhome and Steckel had McNair on his way up, Chow had him as a veteran quarterback who was beaten up and was trying to lead a team depleted by a salary-cap purge in 2005.
"I quite admired the guy," Chow said. "Here I'm some guy from college coming in for his first pro job, and he tried to do what we asked him to do. He was set in some of his ways which was fine; he'd been in the league a long time. ... Despite my inexperience, he was very willing to kind of share and to respect what we were talking about. He never gave you an ounce of trouble or disrespect or anything like that."
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Former Titans coordinator Norm Chow remembers Steve McNair's "tremendous heart."|
"A lot of guys when they feel pressure want to get out of there," Chow said. "I still use one play of Steve on a training tape, where he went over one and up one, dodged a guy, stepped up and rifled a corner route to I think it was Brandon Jones. It was a perfect example of what a quarterback should be like. I show young quarterbacks: 'That right there is just like you would draw it up in a book.'"
Steckel and Chow both talked of McNair's manner, the soft and sincere personality that won so many people over.
"He was always gracious," said Steckel, whose son Luke wore No. 9 as a high school player because of McNair and whose daughter, Leslie, babysat McNair's kids. "I think about how he was so humble and so gracious. ... He was so coachable and so obedient. It was a lot of fun to work with him and to see him grow as a professional quarterback."
"He was really a respectful, kind, gentle guy," said Chow, who once complimented a golf shirt McNair wore and then saw the quarterback bring him a boxful a few weeks later. "He had a tremendous heart and played awfully hard. ... [He was] very candid, very open, very respectful and you could tell that people responded to him."
It's been 10 years since Steckel called plays for McNair. The old coach's prized blue praying pad surfaced as McNair worked his way back from back surgery in 1999.
"He would just kneel down on this big thick pad -- he couldn't sit; his back was still recouping," Steckel said. "I kept that pad; he gave it to me, and I said I could put it to good use. ..."
"I think of Steve every day when I pull it out."
|Rex Brown/Getty Images|
|Vince Young played in just three games for the Titans during the 2008 season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
When Vince Young was preparing for his pro day and the draft, he enlisted retired NFL assistant coach Jerry Rhome, who had worked as Steve McNair's first offensive coordinator.
"I told all my friends, 'Vince is going to surprise everybody and play earlier than everybody thinks,' " Rhome said this week, recalling his time with Young. "And he did. I really thought he'd be off and running. What happened after that, well, I'm no longer in the inner circle."
What happened was that as teams started to figure how to lean on Young and make things difficult, the 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year didn't appear equipped to push back. In the 2008 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a flustered Young had to be forced to return to play in the fourth quarter and eventually was injured. By that time, the Tennessee Titans were ready to hand the offense to Kerry Collins. The much-travelled Collins' efficient play and effective leadership were big parts of a 13-3 season that flamed out with an early playoff exit, and he got a new two-year contract to return.
Young said not long ago he would shut up and smile as he tried to position himself to be a contributor again. But at the start of this week he indicated if he can't get the starting job back, it might be time for him to move on. [Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, unsurprisingly, reacted to the comments as a non-development and said the Titans aren't looking to move him. If a suitor called, I'm pretty sure they would answer the phone.]
Regarding Young's latest comments, Rhome wasn't surprised.
"That comes in really every quarterback's life if he is not starting and he's young and he feels like he should be," Rhome said. "That comes out pretty quick where, 'Well, if I'm not going to play, I hope they'll do something about moving me to another team.' That's been going on since back in the '50s and '60s and I don't blame him. He feels like he's a quality player. And I don't blame Tennessee. They did what they had to do, they're in the business to win. He got hurt and he was struggling a little bit and the other guy came in and played his [expletive] off."
I'm not convinced about Young's trade value considering he's due a $4.25 million roster bonus next year and will have a cap number of more than $14 million.
But former Denver Broncos GM Ted Sundquist said trading for Young has upside. The receiving team would get a relatively inexpensive year -- Young is due a $2.16 million base salary this season -- in which to evaluate him and determine if he's the future. The Titans might reap a third-round pick -- or even a second-rounder -- from a trade partner, Sundquist speculated.
"If you were willing to give up a second-rounder, you might say, 'Look, there is no way that I could find the talent that Vince Young has [elsewhere],'" Sundquist said. "It's hard for me to fathom that all 32 clubs and all the people that get involved in the evaluation process during the course of a draft cycle were all wrong about Vince Young. I think we all saw the potential there athletically. He performed at a very high level at a very competitive college conference. There is something there. Why has it not come out in Tennessee?"
Sundquist reasons that even if the Titans are ready to "cut bait and run," they still might find a team that sees franchise quarterback qualities in Young. And even for the team that acquires Young, "it might not be so bad," Sundquist said.
"Even on a one-year trial basis, it'd be worth it. Because if you did hit, even though he's got the bonus due and an escalating salary, it's still almost cheaper than trying to go and draft another one high in the first round."
Sundquist thinks the Titans would now be best off entertaining any and all offers for a trade.
I believe it's much more likely that Young is on the Titans' roster this season as Collins' backup or ranks as the No. 3 behind Collins and Patrick Ramsey. If Young is outplayed by Ramsey in the Titans' five-game preseason and the Titans are convinced he cannot help and know they won't be paying him what he's scheduled to make in 2010, I think it's possible they'd let him go.
Rhome said Young has changed his phone number several times, and the periodic check-ins have ended.
I'd suggest Young try to reconnect with Rhome, a guy he trusted. Rhome can be a helpful sounding board outside his inner circle and outside team headquarters.
In fact, Rhome could be a big piece of this five-part plan for Young to make the best possible effort to rehabilitate his career.