McNair gets rock-star treatment

WESTMINSTER -- It felt like a coronation as much as a routine football practice marked by the traditional spirals, sprints and scripted plays. About all the arrival of new franchise quarterback Steve McNair lacked was a red carpet leading him down the steps to the practice field at McDaniel College on Friday morning as the Baltimore Ravens officially launched training camp.

Between the laudatory compliments from his new teammates, the standing ovation he received from adoring fans and a replica statue of his likeness in the stands, it was rock-star treatment for the three-time Pro Bowl passer.

"It's new hope now that Steve is here," tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "He has veteran savvy and has been to a Super Bowl. We're proud to have him on this team."

The buzz surrounding McNair enlivened a vocal crowd of 2,530 at the morning practice, and he appeared to equally feed off their energy. Thirty minutes before practice began at 10:30 a.m., McNair made the rounds and high-fived several fans along the sidelines.

"The fans have been magnificent since I've been here," McNair said. "I've been hearing a lot of things and it was a warm welcome for me to be a Raven."

Since McNair replaced erratic former starter Kyle Boller, the perception of the Ravens' prospects have evolved with some national observers earmarking the team as a potential challenger to the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

It's a major change for a football team that finished 6-10 a year ago and failed to win a road game.

Acquiring McNair in a trade from the Tennessee Titans and signing him to a $32 million contract has changed the complexion of the team even for grizzled veterans who have heard for years that the offense was going to be better and instead have observed substandard quarterbacks.

"I've been here 11 years now, and we've been through quarterback, quarterback, quarterback," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's one thing to bring in a quarterback and say he's going to have a great future. It's another thing to bring in a quarterback who's proven.

"We're talking about a guy two years removed from being an MVP. He's one of those guys that the defense says, ‘Oh, yeah, we love him.'"

McNair's understandably rusty showing Friday didn't resemble his Co-MVP form in 2003.

He misfired the football outside when former Titans teammate Derrick Mason cut inside. He muscled his throws with a lot of extra velocity, appearing overly pumped up at times.

His best throw was a tightly-delivered spiral to tight end Todd Heap on a seam route that split the secondary and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas. Thomas got even by intercepting McNair during the afternoon session.

Speaking in his soft-spoken Mississippi drawl, McNair took a low-key approach to his status.

"I'm not trying to be Superman," McNair said. "I'm just going to play my style of game. You win with balance, having a good defense and a good offense. I'm not saying we're going to be an explosive offense, but we will methodically run this thing and execute.

"It's about taking the pressure off the defense, so they can be well-rested in the fourth quarter. That was my goal coming in and it's going to continue to be throughout the season."

The primary reason the Ravens moved up the start of camp from Monday was to give McNair an additional four practices to aid his learning curve with a new playbook.

"He's a smart guy," Mason said. "I don't look for there to be any problem at picking up this offense."

McNair seems to be assimilating fairly well after spending the summer in an accelerated cram course with offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. However, he acknowledged there's still a lot left to learn.

"I'm about 60-70 percent as far as getting out there and running with the first team," McNair said. "I'm not at the point where I want to be, but that's what training camp is for.

"I'm very comfortable calling the plays. It's not going to happen overnight, but I'm going to be patient and learn every practice. I've made big strides."

Plus, Mason can act as McNair's personal cheat sheet in the huddle. The close friends played together for eight seasons in Tennessee, connecting for 29 touchdown passes.

"Derrick has been a great help," McNair said. "He's a guy I've been familiar with for a long time. At this point, it's just about me learning the other guys.

"It's all about what you put into it. I think it's all about the individual. If you want to excel fast, you can do that."

For over a decade, the Ravens have endured mediocrity, or worse, under center regardless of which individual was taking the snap. After missing the playoffs the past two seasons, they hope they've finally identified the missing link in their elusive quest to return to the Super Bowl.

McNair insisted Friday that he's not a savior, but does plan on speaking up if the offense isn't meeting his standard.

"I'm not a guy who's going to yell, I'm not a guy who's going to fight or anything like that," McNair said. "I'm a guy that is just going to tell you what I expect and where I expect you to be."

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

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