Notebook: McNair questionable with tight back

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair is now regarded as a major question mark for Sunday's game against the winless St. Louis Rams, forecasted as a game-time decision due to a stiff back that forced him out of two consecutive practices. Backup Kyle Boller took all of the snaps with the first-team offense and is preparing to make his second start in case McNair is out.

When asked in the locker room Friday before heading off to treatment whether he would play, McNair replied: "Hopefully, I feel all right. If I can't go, then we've got a good backup in Kyle. But we'll see."

McNair has a history of playing through pain, recovering from several surgeries over the course of his 13-year career, including back surgery in 1999 when he led the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl. He didn't appear to be in any pronounced discomfort and was walking normally.

McNair, who has been hampered by a groin pull since the season-opener in Cincinnati, may have aggravated the back injury due to overcompensating with his throwing delivery. The groin injury had been improving and McNair wasn't listed on Wednesday's injury report, but he woke up Thursday with a tight back.

The Ravens listed him as questionable Friday.

"It's just tightened up," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm not sure the groin didn't lead to some tightness in the back. We'll have to see how he feels at the end of the day, we'll see how he feels on Sunday. It's a game-time decision."

Boller has completed 33 of 51 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and one interception this season, engineering a 20-13 win over the New York Jets in his lone start. He also manufactured a game-winning drive in relief of McNair against the Arizona Cardinals and played, albeit not particularly well, when McNair went out in a loss to the Bengals.

McNair has missed 13 starts over the past five seasons, but has only missed one start since being acquired in a trade from Tennessee last year.

"This is pretty much the same as the Jets game, I've gotten a lot of reps in practice and offensively been really into the game plan and watching it on tape," Boller said. "I'll be ready. If he can't go, then I'll just step in there.

"To get all the reps, that's the plus of it. A lot of times when you don't get the reps, it's hard. But I've had the reps all week, so it's been a great opportunity for me to get the timing down.

Billick emphasized one major point: There is no quarterback controversy as far as he's concerned. "Steve McNair is now and will be my starting quarterback for as long as he can go," Billick said.

Meanwhile, the Ravens officially ruled out defensive end Trevor Pryce (broken wrist), offensive tackle Adam Terry (sprained ankle) and tight end Daniel Wilcox (sprained toe).

Terry's absence along with All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden being questionable with a nagging turf toe injury means that 21-year-old rookie Jared Gaither, the former University of Maryland standout, will make his first NFL start.

Tight end Todd Heap has recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week's 9-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers and is expected to start.

Center Mike Flynn pronounced himself as a game-time decision, but isn't expected to play one week after spraining his right medial collateral ligament.

Chris Chester is preparing to start at center, next to rookie right guard Ben Grubbs and rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda.

"Mike is an old pro, and I've learned a lot from him," Chester said. "Hopefully, we can go out there and do a good job again with the veterans out. We definitely take this as a big challenge."

NO CONFIDENCE?: One common thread to the Ravens' red-zone woes is a reluctance to punch the football into the end zone with the running game.

Running back Willis McGahee ranks third in the NFL in rushing, but the Ravens haven't called his number often inside the 20-yard line. He has had very little success running in those confined quarters with decreasing opportunities.

"We need to make the coaches have confidence in us that we can run the ball down on the goal line," said rookie fullback Le'Ron McClain, McGahee's lead blocker. "That's on us to prove ourselves and show that we can get the job done."

INJURY UPDATE: Cornerback Samari Rolle (illness) is listed as questionable and was limited in practice. He's still expected to operate as the nickel back with Corey Ivy starting again. Wide receiver Derrick Mason (stomach problems) participated fully and is expected to start.

Special-teams ace Gary Stills is probable with a knee injury, but practiced.

The Rams ruled out wide receivers Isaac Bruce (hamstring), Dante Hall (ankle) and Dane Looker (thigh) along with running back Steven Jackson (groin) and linebacker Raonall Smith (knee). Looker has required blood transfusions to replenish the blood he lost in a severe contusion against the Dallas Cowboys.

Quarterback Marc Bulger remains questionable with broken ribs and Gus Frerotte, who's probable with an ankle injury, will start. Safety Corey Chavous (pectoral) is questionable and Todd Johnson will likely start.

Wide receiver Torry Holt (knee) is probable along with defensive end James Hall (pectoral).

QUICK HITS: Rookie return specialist Yamon Figurs is over a left shoulder injury that limited his duties a week ago as Ed Reed and Cory Ross took the brunt of the workload on returns. Figurs said Friday that he's completely recovered and will handle both kickoffs and punts Sunday. "I'm all the way back," Figurs said. "My shoulder isn't bothering me anymore." ... Besides being 0-5, the Rams have a problem child in their midst. Tight end Domonique Byrd was delcared inactive for the team's loss to Dallas after missing a special-teams meeting. He also has pending charges for a felony assault and armed criminal action as well as a DUI arrest. "He's a good kid, honestly, I can tell you that," Rams coach Scott Linehan told St. Louis reporters. "He's a project, though. There's a lot of maturing that needs to take place. I know he's got it in him. We've just got to find it." ... Left-footed Rams punter Donnie Jones leads the NFL with a 50.6 punting average.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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