McNair tasked with halting Ravens' road skid

It's been twenty-two months... almost two years. In that time, the Ravens have failed to win a single road game. Today, Steve McNair tries to get that record reversed as quickly as possible in a game that will reveal much about the season to come...

TAMPA, Fla. -- Inside the huddle, at the line of scrimmage before the snap and, most importantly, during live action is where the Baltimore Ravens are counting on quarterback Steve McNair to make an instant impact with a display of composure, savvy and decisiveness.

It wasn't really broached when the Ravens traded for the former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player in June and signed him to a $32 million contract, but Sunday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is exactly why they acquired him.

The first order of business for the new franchise quarterback is accomplishing something this football team hasn't gotten done in 11 games and 22 months: engineer a road win.

Mired in the longest road losing streak in the NFL, the Ravens are faced with the doubly hard challenge of stopping that ineptitude against the defending NFC South champions' top-ranked defense in the league from last year in the Florida heat.

"Every road trip is a roller coaster ride in the National Football League," McNair said. "We've just got to have more ups than downs. That's what they thrive off of, making other teams come into their house and commit turnovers. We've got to be prepared to protect the football, minimize our mistakes offensively and just move the football. Go out there and execute."

That sounds like a simple enough, task but it hasn't been for the Ravens, who last won away from M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 14, 2004 when they defeated the New York Jets 20-17 in overtime.

Since that high-water mark, the Ravens' offense has been a major negative factor in losing 11 games, including seven by 10 points or more. They have committed 27 turnovers and scored only 11 touchdowns during that stretch, generating ugly records.

There was a franchise-low 124 yards of total offense in a loss to the New England Patriots in 2004 as former starter Kyle Boller completed just 13 of 35 passes. Plus, the Ravens had 14 rushing yards and no first downs in the first half of a 25-10 loss against the Titans last September as McNair threw a touchdown for his old team.

"That's in the past, that's how we have to look at it," safety Ed Reed said. "We have new goals, and this is a new team. We can't look at the past.

"Of course, we've got to learn from it. But what happened then, we can't drag that with us now. We've got to go to Tampa with a different mind-set."

It got even worse in a loss to the Detroit Lions last year where the Ravens committed a franchise-high 21 penalties and had two players ejected. Eight of those 11 losses were to playoff teams, which is about the only mitigating factor.

"We've earned that record," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "So we are knee-deep in that responsibility, but it does no good for us to focus on it. If you don't play well, you might pull one out at home, but you'll get your butt kicked on the road.

"We've spent hours looking at every aspect of how we travel. What hotels? What are we feeding them? What is the time? Who does what? When do we get up? What underwear did you have on the week before when we won? We are exhausting everything we can."

Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, McNair's friend and Titans teammate for eight seasons, made a joke about the 32-year-old perhaps being nervous, drawing laughter at the idea of the smiling, surgically-scarred three-time Pro Bowl passer reverting to his raw youth in his 68th career road game.

"Seriously, I expect him to go out and do what he has done since I have been playing with the guy and that is to go out with a calm demeanor, the poise of a veteran quarterback, to go out there and make the right call, the right decision and lead this offense the way he knows how," Mason said. "I have seen him go through the tough teams in the first game of the season when he is really hot.

"He is able to go out and manage the game like a top-notch quarterback is capable of doing. We start out with a very tough opponent, but I expect him to do the things that he's accustomed to doing: to lead us and try to put some points up for us."

Traditionally, that's what McNair has done in his 11 seasons. Whereas Boller went 5-12 in road games with 23 interceptions, McNair has a career road record of 37-30, throwing just about half of his 103 career interceptions on the road.

"I'm excited to see all aspects of this team go out and compete against some live bullets, offense especially," said cornerback Chris McAlister, whose team hasn't won a season opener since 2001 against the Chicago Bears. "I'm excited to see if we can sit down for six or seven minutes on the bench and get some air, breathe, get some Gatorade, look at extra film then get back out there and do it all over again."

McNair generated hope during the preseason, completing 76.1 percent of his throws with one interception. He only had two three-and-outs among his dozen drives.

He'll be immediately challenged by the Buccaneers, who went 6-2 last season at pirate-themed Raymond James Stadium, and their aggressive Tampa 2 defense that's being copied throughout the league.

"This will set the tone as far as how we prepare and how we play on the road," McNair said. "That's the big emphasis. You've got to be able to win on the road to get where we want to go."

The Ravens don't appear surprised by anything McNair has done so far. Privately, they just hope that an offensive line described as suspect throughout league circles can keep a quarterback healthy that has undergone six major surgeries.

"We have all watched him over the years, and you come to expect what he is all about," tight end Todd Heap said. "When he comes to the Ravens and I see him for the first time, I'm like, ‘Yeah, he is the real deal. This is what I expected.' Definitely, he has lived up to everything we brought him here for."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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