Friday April 18th, 2008

Steve McNair's retirement was hours old Thursday when I fielded the inevitable Hall of Fame question for the first time. Given that I was doing a radio show on a Nashville sports talk station, it was a logical query for someone from that part of the world -- where No. 9 made his NFL name -- to pose.

Is McNair worthy of Canton? I'm not a Hall of Fame voter, but if I were, my own debate wouldn't last long. McNair certainly produced greatness at times during his 13-year NFL career, but he came nowhere near sustaining it from start to finish.

He was one of the league's preeminent gamers, a real warrior in terms of answering the bell on Sundays. He commanded the respect of almost everyone league-wide, and competed as fiercely as anyone. But while he was undoubtedly one of the game's best quarterbacks for a time, his brilliance spanned a relatively short time.

I would make the case that from 1999 to 2003, the year he shared the MVP honor with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, McNair was among the NFL's quarterbacking elite. He led the Titans to four playoff berths in those five seasons, played in one Super Bowl, and made two of his four Pro Bowl appearances. But he was not at that same level in either the first four years of his career, or the final four, even factoring in his highly successful renaissance season of 2006 in Baltimore. With the exception of Gale Sayers noted, five years of excellence does not a Hall of Fame career make.

After being drafted No. 3 overall by Houston in 1995, McNair largely sat and watched Chris Chandler play for two years (he got just six starts combined in 1995-96) before taking over as Tennessee's full-time starter in 1997. Last season, of course, injuries wiped out his final year in the NFL, limiting him to just six games with meager production.

Just three times in McNair's 13 seasons he threw for at least 20 touchdowns. Only twice in full seasons did he compile a passer rating of 90.0 or higher. But with McNair, the numbers never told the full story. To me, his greatest legacy will always be his uncanny ability to miss practice all week due to injury, and still perform -- often heroically -- on game day. In his MVP season of 2003, McNair barely stepped on the practice field due to an assortment of maladies. But he somehow toughed out 14 starts that season, leading the Titans to a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff win at Baltimore.

But McNair's body began to truly betray him after that memorable season, and just once in his last four NFL seasons did he start all 16 games, that being in 2006, when the defensive-led Ravens went 13-3 but lost to the eventual champion Colts at home in the divisional round. No matter what the Ravens said publicly this offseason, they were not fully counting on McNair to go the distance in 2008, and were as certain to draft a quarterback in either the first or second round next weekend as they are today.

Even though he last played for Tennessee in 2005, McNair remains beloved in Nashville and in the Titans organization, and no doubt he'll deservedly have his No. 9 retired by the team in the near future. But the truth of the matter is there were always those in the organization who felt McNair's era of dominance would be relatively short because he wasn't known for his commitment to the Titans offseason workout program, or seen as someone who would put in the long in-season hours that often come with preparing to play NFL quarterback on game day.

McNair got it done on game day in his prime, but at 35 I don't think he thought he could play it his way any more and succeed at the level he was accustomed to. Certainly not with energetic new Ravens head coach John Harbaugh sending signals that the days of a more relaxed, veteran-friendly approach to both offseason and in-season routines are over in Baltimore.

I think McNair saw the writing on the wall to some degree and realized that his easy-does-it way of doing things wouldn't fly as well under Harbaugh as it had under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and Brian Billick with the Ravens. Harbaugh is trying to change the culture around the Ravens complex, instilling a sense of discipline and accountability that he quite rightly feels has been lacking in recent years. He intends to signal that the days of the inmates running the asylum are passé.

We knew that as a rookie NFL head coach, Harbaugh's biggest challenge in Baltimore would be to navigate a very veteran and quite divided locker room -- along the lines of offense versus defense -- that had grown set in its ways. And already there's some grumbling among old hands who don't think they're going to like Harbaugh's new get-tough approach. Players like Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Derrick Mason and Samari Rolle are probably already missing Billick and his loose hands on the reins. Harbaugh is changing things, from cubicle assignments in the locker room, to stricter training camp rules in terms of players' freedom, to the edict that Baltimore will wear game jerseys in practice.

McNair likely thought he was too old, with too many body parts already sacrificed in NFL wars to last long with a new sheriff in town. So he did the old pros versus cons things in his head and came up with the audible that made the most sense to him. Time to walk away. Time to call it a career. It was a very good and at times great one, and not every No. 3 overall pick can make that claim. Even if it does fall short of Hall of Fame standards, there's no shame in that.

• Stuff I'm hearing as draft weekend approaches......

• When Miami football czar Bill Parcells looks at Ohio State defensive end-linebacker Vernon Gholston, he sees the next DeMarcus Ware, whom the Tuna picked in 2005's first round for Dallas. And by the way, I think that slip of the tongue by Miami general manager Jeff Ireland in his pre-draft press conference on Thursday was pretty telling. I completely believe he was describing Gholston with those comments, not Virginia defensive end Chris Long. The word is that Miami doesn't feel Long's upside in the NFL is all that far up.

• Baltimore personnel evaluators held a private workout of Matt Ryan in the Boston area on Wednesday. The Ravens are quietly optimistic that the Boston College quarterback is going to be there for them at No. 8, and I now agree. Without or without Steve McNair's retirement, Baltimore has been positively giddy about the prospect of landing Ryan since at least February.

• I'm still not certain if it'll be Darren McFadden to the No. 4 Raiders or the No. 6 Jets, but if all the talk about bad blood between Al Davis and Howie Long is true -- and I've heard it too many times this week for it to be bunk -- then Chris Long isn't going to be wearing the silver and black after next weekend.

• You could make a case that the most coveted player in the draft's top 10 might wind up being Southern Cal defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. He could go fifth to Kansas City, seventh to New England, ninth to Cincinnati or 10th to New Orleans. In my latest mock, I predicted a first-round trade between the Patriots and Bengals for the right to select Ellis, but the Saints could have something to say about that. Then again, there's talk New Orleans has explored going all the way up to No. 2 in order to take the draft's top-rated defensive tackle, LSU's Glenn Dorsey. But don't count on that one transpiring.

• One scout I trust told me he thinks the first-round cornerbacks will come off the board in the following order: Troy's Leodis McKelvin, South Florida's Mike Jenkins, Kansas's Aqib Talib, Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Virginia Tech's Brandon Flowers.

• I love it when a story like the news of Kansas City shopping Jared Allen in trade talks includes the somewhat casual mention that all that remains is for the teams to work out the terms of the deal and for the player to agree to a new contract with the club he's heading to. Oh, is that all? That's only everything that constitutes a trade in the NFL these days. What else is there, making sure a player's wife likes the new city?

• You get the feeling the Packers want to retire Brett Favre's No. 4 as quickly as possible at least in part to turn the page with as much finality as they can tactfully muster? Me too. They're clearly not sitting around pining for one more miracle comeback from Favre in Green Bay, and by that I mean in the Packers front office and coaching staff.

• I wonder if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would have generated the same amount of pre-draft buzz if his name were Dominique Rodgers?

• Wouldn't it be great if the Baltimore somehow wound up with North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer? That's how the old hands still say it down there near the Chesapeake. Bal'mer is a loose translation of Baltimore.

• Somebody put me down for predicting that Delaware's Joe Flacco will in time be judged the best of this year's quarterback crop. He may not show up at all in the league as a rookie, and maybe not even in 2009. But eventually he'll be the best of this particular bunch.

• I am so bored already with the Chad Johnson saga, and it's only April. Somebody wake me up when training camp opens and he's still stomping his feet in an effort to get out of Cincinnati. Until then, it's all prologue.

• For at least the 14th time, Roger Goodell said this week that an agreement to hear out ex-Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh is near. Sorry. Can't fool me. Not this time. Not falling for the commissioner crying wolf routine again.

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