McNair's cram course begins

OWINGS MILLS -- The late audible the Baltimore Ravens called by trading for Steve McNair last week will trigger an accelerated football classroom for the veteran quarterback. As the Ravens reconvene at their training complex Tuesday for their final minicamp,

the clock is ticking for McNair to familiarize himself with a different playbook, terminology, personnel, coaching staff and pass protection schemes.

In three months, the Ravens will open the regular season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During that period, McNair's mental acumen and experience gained in several, diverse offensive systems with the Tennessee Titans will be severely tested.

"It's going to be a challenge for me," said McNair, whom Baltimore acquired for a fourth-round draft pick and signed to a five-year, $32 million contract. "I have taken the challenge in the past and whatever it takes for me to get this game plan down -- flying here two or three times a week – that's what I'm willing to do because I know what this team is capable of doing."

McNair spent the weekend in Nashville, Tenn., but his reading for the airplane flight included the Ravens' playbook.

Plus, he plotted a schedule over the next six weeks to regularly meet with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, who adjusted his vacation plans to get the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback up to speed prior to the July 30 launch of training camp in Westminster.

"It's a heck of a lot easier with a veteran because they understand the game," said Fassel, who has previously coached John Elway, Boomer Esiason and Kerry Collins. "They know all that universal stuff. Right now, it's just the verbiage and that's going to take some time.

"The only thing is it's a reaction position. He can sit in our meeting room and I can draw it up and he can have it down cold. Come September, it's got to come second-nature. You can't be thinking about it."

One major point of emphasis for McNair will be learning the Ravens' pass protection schemes. That's for his own safety because if he's unaware of how his blockers are setting up, he could quickly find himself confronted with a barrage of blitzes.

"If he's confused about protections, that's when he's going to get whacked," Fassel said. "That's the starting point."
The mental aspect of the game has never presented a major challenge in the past for McNair.

Despite playing for four different offensive coordinators, including recent stints with Norm Chow and Mike Heimerdinger, McNair has thrived.

McNair has directed offenses that emphasized the run, including two-tight end sets and the Power-I, as well as more free-wheeling ones featuring three and four wide receivers.

"It's a bit of a cram course for Steve," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Whatever style we adopt, he's done it. He'll be able to access what our players do best."

If the trade hadn't been executed last week, it was possible that McNair could have remained on the Titans' roster until late July. That sort of delay would have shaved six weeks off of his preparation time with Baltimore.

The Ravens plan to accommodate their offense to suit McNair's strengths. At this stage of an 11-year career, McNair is usually inclined to operate as a pocket passer.

"Learning a new system is a lot easier for a receiver than a quarterback, but I don't think it will take him that long," said receiver Derrick Mason, who led Baltimore in receptions last season after eight seasons with the Titans. "A quarterback has to know what everybody is doing, where the blitzes are coming from and where the line is shifting. Now, Steve can come in here and start fresh again. He's shown the ability to adapt."

NOTES: Defensive tackle Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson has been rumored to be a potential target of the Ravens, but it's believed the roster is basically set and that the team is unlikely to pursue him after drafting Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the first round. … Center Mike Flynn (knee) and cornerback Samari Rolle (elbow) are question marks for team drills, and linebacker Ray Lewis (hamstring) and receiver Clarence Moore (hernia) aren't going to practice.. … The Ravens hope that rookie quarterback Drew Olson will be able to attend workouts if his final exam schedule at UCLA allows. Ngata and receiver Demetrius Williams aren't allowed to attend due to Oregon's graduation schedule.

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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