After keeping him under wraps for most of two seasons, the
Oilers have finally called upon Steve (Air) McNair to show them
the way back to the playoffs, where they haven't been in three
years. But the 6'2", 224-pound McNair, the third pick in the
1995 draft, can't do it alone. Someone must consistently come
down with the football when McNair airs it out, someone other
than tight end Frank Wycheck, who was the team's leading
receiver last season with a paltry 53 catches.
That puts the onus on wideout Chris Sanders, another member of
the rookie class of '95, to fulfill the potential that has been
apparent since he arrived with McNair as a third-round selection
from Ohio State. In his rookie year Sanders caught 35 passes,
averaged a gaudy 23.5 yards per catch and scored nine
touchdowns, including seven in the team's final seven games.
Oilers coach Jeff Fisher was so impressed that he has gone so
far as to compare Sanders to Jerry Rice. Then last year some
opposing defenses started treating Sanders like Rice: constant
double teams. Sanders wound up with 48 catches, only four
touchdowns and a strong dose of humility.
"To be the best, you've got to break those double coverages,"
says Sanders, who has great speed.
Two off-season changes should help Sanders get closer to his
goal: assistant coach Les Steckel's promotion to offensive
coordinator, replacing the fired Jerry Rhome, and McNair's
elevation to starting quarterback, following the off-season
trade of veteran Chris Chandler to the Falcons. While Rhome
typically sent Sanders on vertical patterns up the sidelines,
Steckel plans to use him on crossing routes and employ a variety
of tactics (motion, three-receiver sets, breaking off patterns
underneath coverage) to give the 6'1" receiver some room to
McNair, who started four games last year after throwing only 80
passes in '95, and Sanders clicked immediately last season. They
hooked up 21 times for 518 yards (a staggering 24.7-yard
average) and three touchdowns, including an 83-yard strike in a
35-10 victory over the Jets last December.
If Sanders doesn't make it big, it won't be for lack of effort.
He showed up at the Oilers' practice facility to lift weights
the day after the '96 season ended. His constant off-season
companion was a ball-throwing machine. He got his work ethic
from his mother, who saw him through a difficult adolescence; in
elementary school, Sanders says, he was suspended for throwing
rocks and books at his teachers. "I work as hard as I can," he
says, "because I know what real work is like, and believe me,
this is a good job." In high school Sanders worked at Lowery Air
Force Base in Denver, waiting tables and stacking dishes for
$6.95 an hour. He worked for about the same wage cleaning pools
one collegiate summer in Columbus.
Sometimes Sanders's desire gets him in trouble with Fisher. One
day in practice during his rookie year, the Oilers were running
a red-zone drill when Sanders dived for a ball. "Stay off the
ground, Chris," Fisher barked. "The game is Sunday." Sanders
apologized and stayed out of trouble until a two-minute drill at
the end of practice, which he completed by making an acrobatic
catch at the back of the end zone and landing on his shoulder.
The players went nuts, clapping their approval. Fisher went
ballistic. "What did I say before, Chris?" the coach asked.
"Don't dive," Sanders answered.
"And what did you do?" Fisher asked.
"I dove, Coach."
Then Fisher turned and addressed the team. "You guys know
something? That's how important this game is to him."