McNair fits leadership bill

OWINGS MILLS -- Inside the Baltimore Ravens' huddle, silence invariably greets the arrival of quarterback Steve McNair. It's his huddle, his offense, and, with his composure, clutch performances, cautious approach and accuracy, his winning imprint on a football team that used to be desperate for leadership under center.

With McNair spearheading a resurgent offense that's pulling its own weight for a change on a franchise defined by a gritty defense, the Ravens have a healthy belief that there's no ceiling on their prospects.
When his teammates look at McNair, they invariably see a smile on his face balanced by an intense look in his eyes.
"He brings leadership, he brings a calmness and he brings confidence. When we get into the huddle, it's like there's nothing we can't do," tight end Todd Heap said. "You read his eyes and he brings that to everybody. We've kind of taken on his personality as a team, as an offense especially.
"He's gone through just about everything you can go through. He's been to the Pro Bowl. He's lost the Super Bowl, so now we're going to try to win him a Super Bowl."
This AFC divisional playoff game Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts (13-4) at M&T Bank Stadium is a perfect example why the Ravens (13-3) traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Tennessee Titans in June to acquire the three-time Pro Bowl passer.
If the Ravens find themselves trailing on the scoreboard against quarterback Peyton Manning and a dynamic Colts offense, they have confidence that McNair can bring them back. By virtue of McNair's three comeback victories engineered over the Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers and the Titans, Baltimore is no longer helpless if it falls behind.
"If he's got to take a shot, he'll take a shot," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "He never gets upset. He never really loses his cool, and we kind of all just go along with that demeanor that Steve has. We believe we can get it done because Steve believes it can get done."
Added longtime teammate Derrick Mason, who played eight years with McNair in Tennessee: "He's just older that's all. Older, a little wiser. He brings the same attitude to the field. Nothing's changed about Steve. He'll kill you with silence."
McNair, who turns 34 on Feb. 14 after Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Fla., hasn't dazzled statistically. However, that's been the story of his entire career.
Even when McNair shared league Most Valuable Player honors with Manning in 2003, he only threw 24 touchdowns.
His precise throws and toughness have defined his career over his numbers. McNair has an 82.5 passer rating that ranks 14th in the NFL, tossing 16 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
His 63 percent completion rate is a career-high. Plus, there's his trademark calm.
"I'm very comfortable in what I do," McNair said. "I'm very comfortable in my teammates because all year we've been playing for each other. I'm a guy who's going to go out there and give it all I've got.
"As a quarterback, you can't get too excited on a certain play because you've got to call the next play. Regardless of if it's good or bad, you've got to put that behind you and stay focused."
McNair's immediate challenge is trying to solve the Colts' Cover 2 scheme that makes it difficult to strike deep and requires a quarterback to patiently try to carve up yardage with short to intermediate throws.
McNair, who's 2-5 as a starter against the Colts with five consecutive losses against his former AFC South rival, will face the NFL's second-ranked pass defense. It's a somewhat misleading statistic since offenses were so busy attacking the league's last-ranked run defense.
"The thing this team is all about is being patient," McNair said. "Take what the defense gives us. When they give us the big play, we've got to take advantage of it. They're a team that bends, but doesn't break."
Since coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed play-calling duties, the Ravens have gone 9-1. McNair has passed for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 92.9 passer rating in the past 10 games after throwing for 915 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 64.1 rating under Fassel.
Now, McNair, whose Titans team lost 23-16 to the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl seven postseasons ago when his completion to Kevin Dyson came up one yard shy of the end zone to end the game, is two victories away from returning to the Super Bowl.
Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose team defeated the Ravens 24-7 to open last season, has recognized a major difference in the Ravens' persona since McNair arrived in town.
"Confidence, more than anything else," Dungy said. "They've got a guy who's going to take care of the football. He's not going to get rattled. He's not going to have an off-day in a big game. If they are down four points with three minutes to go, they know that he's going to find a way to win the game."
McNair has directed an offense that excels at controlling the football with an average time of possession of 32 minutes, 49 seconds to lead the NFL. It's also the Ravens' top time of possession finish since winning the Super Bowl six years ago with a run-first offense managed by Trent Dilfer.
"I know this: If I'm playing against McNair, he's a guy who knows how to win those big games," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I understand that there's not going to be a lot of mistakes. He's not going to be throwing crazy passes, stupid passes.
"That's the wrap on McNair as far as big games. He really steps up and becomes that big player that team needs."
Months after being locked out of the Titans' training complex during a bitter contract dispute, McNair is in the playoffs while his former team will be watching him play on television.
If there are lingering hard feelings or an ‘I told you so' aspect to his story, McNair isn't inclined toward telling it publicly.
"I'll leave that in the past," McNair said. "I think those guys make the decisions, and we've all got to live with it. I'm glad I'm part of the Ravens and that is that. I don't wish anything bad on those guys because business is business.
"I've been truly blessed that I got the chance to come here. To see us as a team gel together as quickly as we did and now be in the playoffs, it's a magnificent deal."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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