McNair fighting learning curve with Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- It wasn't a vintage debut for quarterback Steve McNair, but wine usually improves with time. Confusion and hesitance understandably characterized McNair's first practice Tuesday morning with the Baltimore Ravens. The three-time Pro Bowl selection often resembled a foreigner unaccustomed to his surroundings during a voluntary minicamp.

Although McNair completed his first pass attempt to tight end Todd Heap, the majority of his throws during his first practice with the Ravens weren't delivered on rhythm with his targets. While gaining timing is an immediate issue for McNair, getting acclimated to a new playbook after 11 years with the Tennessee Titans is the bigger-picture priority.

"It's mind boggling right now," said McNair, who was acquired for a fourth-round draft pick and signed to a five-year contract with a maximum value of $32 million. "I think the verbiage is the most important thing right now. Once I can feel comfortable and visualize the formation and the routes that they're running, things will be OK. It's like starting all over again."

With the benefit of his three-year starting tenure in Baltimore, backup Kyle Boller was noticeably sharper than McNair with the major exception of forcing a pass into heavy coverage that was intercepted by Jamaine Winborne.

One late, errant McNair pass was nearly intercepted, but defensive back Robb Butler dropped the football. It was McNair's first practice since December, following an offseason where he was locked out of the Titans' headquarters due to a high-profile contract dispute.

"He was thinking a lot," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of McNair, a 2003 NFL Co-Most Valuable Player. "He looked a little like a rookie coming out here. Obviously, he's got a lot to absorb right now."

Communication is the major issue of the moment involving McNair.

Learning a new playbook can mirror the real-life equivalent of becoming accustomed to speaking a new language.

"I had a few mishaps out there," said McNair, who acknowledged that it felt strange to be wearing a purple No. 9 jersey after such a long stint with the Titans. "I think I used one of my calls I had last year with the Titans. I told the guys to just be patient with me. It felt different."

McNair's shared background of eight seasons and 29 touchdown passes with wide receiver Derrick Mason paid dividends toward the end of practice.

McNair intentionally threw the football behind Mason and cornerback Chris McAlister on a 50-yard sideline pattern. Mason adjusted to the shortly- thrown lob, and McAlister never turned his back to defend the pass.

"You could tell him throwing to Derrick was different than him throwing to anyone else because there's already that relationship," Billick said. "There's a lot of levels he's got to get comfortable with."

Later, McNair connected again with Heap in a crowd and darted another short pass between Bart Scott and McAlister to Devard Darling. Plus, he went after former Titans teammate Samari Rolle to find Mason for a first down.

Mostly, though, McNair was just feeling his way through highly unfamiliar terminology, formations and routes.

"Mentally, it was a task for me going against Baltimore's defense and trying to figure out what they're doing and figure out where to throw the ball," McNair said. "It's very difficult, but, at the same time, we've got a long way to go. They're going to take me slow. I had a couple mishaps out there."

The Ravens seem to have modest expectations for McNair's on-field initiation, which will end Thursday when the team concludes its final minicamp. He'll spend the next six weeks shuttling back and forth from his home in Nashville, Tenn., to the Ravens' training complex to meet with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.

To accelerate his learning curve, Mason gave Billick a list of the Titans' terminology to allow the coaching staff to explain the Ravens' offense in terms that are familiar to McNair.

"It's a language," Billick said. "It's going to take a while, but hopefully by training camp, he's totally immersed in that. Constantly hearing over and over again the personnel, formation, route, the way we make the call against certain coverages, the constant verbiage, it's a barrage right now.

"He'll get saturated with it. .. He has such an easy, confident demeanor the minute you sit down with him. There's a sense of familiarity because of the way he carries himself."

McNair, who has played for four offensive coordinators and run everything from the Power-I to more freewheeling attacks that featured three and four wide receivers, noted that old habits are hard to break after spending over a decade with one football team.

If anything, the presence of Mason should help the quarterback get acclimated. The sight of his former go-to receiver running upfield was a reference points for McNair during his first day at his new office.

"It helps, it kind of puts you in an easier comfort zone," McNair said. "There wasn't an instant rhythm, but it's going to come.

"I know his style of play and his smartness and savvy for the game. I'm trying to get on the same page with all these guys."

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

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