McNair adds swagger to Ravens offense

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- 'Twas the night before training camp, and Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was playing for his players a highlight reel from last season. You know, get them amped up for the camp grind. He showed them the things you'd expect: big hits, picks, recoveries, returns for touchdowns. Then, toward the end of the presentation, Steve McNair appears on the screen, speaking at his press conference following the offseason trade from Tennessee to Baltimore. From that point on it was the Air McNair show, complete with completions from McNair to (teammate then and now) Derrick Mason.

If you're familiar with the Ravens' offensive history, particularly the franchise's quarterback lineage, then Ryan's point in including the McNair clips was fairly obvious.

"I wanted those guys to realize the type of quarterback that we have now," Ryan explains. "There are no excuses why this football team can't win and win big. There's no more, 'We don't have this.' Sometimes guys would get caught up in other teams having this and that QB. Well, now we've got that QB. We've got one of those rare cats.

"Bring it on."

Honestly, do we really need to get into all the differences between an offense directed by Kyle Boller and the potential of one led by a former Pro Bowler and league co-MVP who's done just about everything in his 11-year career short of winning a Super Bowl? Didn't think so.

Let's instead focus this discussion on the real issue: How are the Ravens going to keep McNair, 33, healthy? Should Baltimore be forced to play without McNair for several games or an extended period, the chances aren't good with Boller back at the helm that the Ravens' season will extend deep into January 2007.

The Ravens have Mason and up-and-coming Mark Clayton on the outside along with Todd Heap, who in terms of receiving tight ends is second to none. They're deep at tailback, led by a healthier (mentally and physically) Jamal Lewis and free-agent pickup Mike Anderson. Baltimore still has plenty of playmakers on defense.

So really all the pieces are there now for this team to not only make a run at the playoffs but at the AFC North title, perhaps even for a spot in the Super Bowl. It's just a matter of whether the offensive line -- on paper, perhaps the one major question there is on this team -- can keep the first franchise quarterback in the franchise's history in one piece.

The Ravens' offensive line -- and not to say that the group was alone in this distinction -- was subpar in 2005. For a number of reasons. Above all there was no continuity or chemistry because Baltimore did a lot of shuffling up front, especially on the right side. Tony Pashos and the departed Orlando Brown rotated at right tackle. Keydrick Vincent and Brian Rimpf shared the right guard duties.

Edwin Mulitalo started all but one game at left guard, but his season was sabotaged from the start. His father passed away before training camp, Mulitalo fell ill, and he wasn't in shape coming into camp and stayed that way all season.

Center Mike Flynn and future Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden showed up for every game, but Flynn, frankly, isn't anything special and Ogden was nicked up throughout the season.

So what did the Ravens do in the offseason to upgrade the line? They spent all of a second-round pick on Oklahoma center/guard Chris Chester.

What will be different about Baltimore's o-line in '06? Plenty, they think. They hope.

The only issue right now is Ogden's absence from camp as he deals with his father's recent death. When it's time to play he'll be fine. Mulitalo, team sources say, is in the best condition he's been in years. He still carries 350 pounds but he worked hard in the offseason to lose some of the fat and added 10-plus pounds of muscle.

Flynn's still in the middle. He's healthy after having a knee scoped in the spring. On the right side, Vincent looks better having had a year in the offense. Pashos is a better communicator than Brown, the Ravens say, which also should help Vincent.

Those are the starters for now. "For now" because the Ravens are loving this Chester kid. The book on him is he has great feet, excellent strength, and he's strong for his size (295). Team officials privately expect him to be starting at guard by midseason if not earlier. He's been compared to former Steelers great Dermotti Dawson.

The team also is high on guard/center Jason Brown, their fourth-rounder last year out of North Carolina. Orlando Brown brought an attitude to the line. It's missing now. Perhaps Jason Brown can infuse some. He could be starting sooner rather than later himself.

And with Ogden out, swing tackle Adam Terry, a second-round pick out of Syracuse last year, has gotten a lot of work at left tackle. Terry put in a lot of work in the offseason to improve his strength, which was lacking last season as a rookie. You can see his confidence growing.

That's good depth and versatility the Ravens have behind the starters.

What's also going to help the line is better quarterback play. McNair has such excellent field vision and is more decisive with his throws. He won't hold on to the football as long as Boller did. The quicker the ball is released, the less time the line has to protect the pass. The line also would help itself by run blocking better than it did last season; because the Ravens running game was so uncharacteristically ineffective, defenses often would key on Heap and Mason in the red zone.

As for McNair himself, he brings a presence to the offensive huddle the Ravens haven't had since Shannon Sharpe was with the team. McNair has the clout to correct teammates without rubbing anybody the wrong way. He won't force plays the way Boller did. He won't compound problems by trying to make something out of a bad play. And when McNair does make mistakes, his teammates have confidence in him that he'll bounce back. The Ravens finally have someone they can look to at quarterback, whereas before guys couldn't even look Boller in the eyes when he'd come off the field.

There is excitement about Baltimore's offense rather than anxiety. The offense doesn't have to play on eggshells. They have a chance on third-and-long. Lewis won't face loaded fronts every down. The defense doesn't have to go into games knowing they have to hold teams to 14 points or fewer.

Baltimore's offense has … a swagger?

"We've got a lot of guys that have confidence in themselves that they're going to get the job done," Heap says. "You can just see it in practice."

"I feel the vibe," McNair says. He also says he can see the effect his arrival has had by the way his offensive teammates, particularly the linemen, are playing loose, having fun.

McNair, who has had a half-dozen surgeries and has been beaten up so much in recent years that he barely practiced in Tennessee, says he's "as healthy as I can be." So long as it stays that way for the most part, the fun should continue in Baltimore.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.