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Inside The NFL

Sept. 20, 1999
Sept. 20, 1999

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Sept. 20, 1999

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Inside The NFL

IN CHARGE
Showing some of his old college flair, Steve McNair rallied the
Titans over the Bengals

This is an article from the Sept. 20, 1999 issue

Last Saturday morning, outside a meeting room at the Titans'
training complex in suburban Nashville, offensive coordinator Les
Steckel and quarterback coach Bart Andrus stood quietly, cocking
their heads toward the open door. Inside, fifth-year quarterback
Steve McNair was running his first game-plan meeting with his
wideouts, tight ends and backs. He went over each of the 45 pass
plays, stressing to the receivers how he wanted them to run their
routes. Coach Jeff Fisher, whose idea it was to give the quiet
McNair more control over his domain, walked up to Steckel and
whispered, "How's he doing?"

"Fine," a smiling Steckel replied softly. "Just fine."

On Sunday against the Bengals, the coaching staff's confidence
in McNair paid off. He completed 21 of 32 passes for a
career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a
score. Not that McNair's big day wasn't without disappointment.
If Tennessee hadn't blown so many scoring chances, it could have
led 43-7 instead of 26-21 at the half. With five minutes to go
the Titans trailed by nine, but they rallied for a 36-35 win.

Along the way McNair was booed twice after committing turnovers.
"Doesn't seem right, does it?" said the quiet native of Mount
Olive, Miss., who was a bit downcast after the win. "There are a
lot of things I understand, but that's not one of them."

The then Houston Oilers drafted McNair out of Alcorn State with
the third pick in the 1995 draft, and Fisher decided to play
McNair sparingly his first two pro seasons rather than throw him
to the wolves. But when McNair finally got a chance to play full
time in '97 and '98, the club didn't take off the kid gloves.
The Oilers turned Titans may have drafted the man with the tools
to be the next John Elway, but through four seasons they looked
as if they had ended up with the next Rich Gannon. Though he
threw only 10 interceptions last year, McNair averaged just 6.56
yards per attempt, drawing criticism for not throwing downfield
enough.

"I had a lot of high expectations entering the NFL, about
throwing the ball 40 times a game," McNair said last Saturday.
"But the coaches decided to have a move-the-chains offense."

Right after he said that, McNair left to run the meeting.
Looking on his game sheet at the first pass play, a go-route up
the right sideline to wideout Yancey Thigpen, McNair said,
"Yancey, on single coverage I expect you to win, and if you do,
you're getting the ball. Let's capitalize on their young
secondary." Then McNair turned to tight end Frank Wycheck. "If
Yancey can't win it, you've got the middle--and I'm looking at
you."

On the first play of Tennessee's season, Thigpen sprinted past
rookie corner Charles Fisher. Before a rainbow from McNair
arrived, Fisher tackled Thigpen. The result: pass interference
and a 17-yard gain. The Titans drove 70 yards in four plays
capped by McNair's one-yard touchdown run; they threw on six of
their first seven plays and, just like that, McNair was unleashed.

When he saw a reporter after the game, Jeff Fisher asked
jokingly, "So who was he today--Elway or Gannon?" Elway. For one
game, at least.

Upon Further Review
REPLAY ALREADY UNDER FIRE

When Mike Perreira, the NFL's supervisor of officials, gathered
the league's 16 referees in Dallas last Friday to pass out final
instructions on the new instant-replay system, he stressed that
no call should be overturned without "absolutely indisputable
evidence." Said Perreira last Saturday, "We grilled them on it."

Maybe 10th-year referee Ed Hochuli was in the men's room at the
time Perreira made his key point. Hochuli's overturning of a Bucs
completion against the Giants on Sunday enraged the NFL's most
mild-mannered coach, Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy, and cast doubt about
whether the league's $10 million instant-replay system can work.
"The system stinks," Dungy told SI on Monday. "There's no way for
that referee to say there was indisputable evidence. When we
voted replay in, it was to correct the obvious visual error, not
to overturn a play that could go either way."

Tampa Bay trailed the Giants 17-13 when, with 1:37 left, Bucs
wideout Karl Williams dived to catch a tipped pass near
midfield. It was ruled a catch on the field, but the replay
official in the upstairs booth called down to Hochuli and asked
him to review the play. (In the final two minutes of each half,
only the replay official can challenge a call.) The best one
could tell from the four replay angles was that Williams had
possession of the ball and that it never touched the ground. In
none of the replays was there indisputable evidence to overturn
the call, but Hochuli still wiped out the 28-yard gain. "After
the game," Giants co-owner Wellington Mara said on Monday, "I
told Tony that call should not have been overturned."

Of the 10 calls that were challenged (eight of them by coaches)
in Sunday's 14 games, four were overturned. The only replay
decision that sparked a controversy was the one that went against
the Bucs. "I don't think we should throw it out now," Dungy said.
"But it's not working right. We need consistency."

Testaverde's Freak Injury
JETS MUST RALLY BEHIND MIRER

Even if you didn't blink, you still might have missed it. As he
moved to recover a fumble by running back Curtis Martin in the
second quarter of the Jets' 30-28 loss to the Patriots,
quarterback Vinny Testaverde dropped to the turf. Though
untouched on the play, he had ruptured his left Achilles tendon.
In an instant his season--and, in all likelihood, the Jets'
Super Bowl hopes--had ended.

The uneven play of backup quarterbacks Tom Tupa and Rick Mirer
did nothing to brighten New York's suddenly bleak prospects.
Tupa's deceiving numbers (six completions in 10 attempts, 165
yards, two touchdowns) owed a great deal to the brilliance of
wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who finished with eight catches for a
career-best 194 yards. The well-traveled Mirer, now with his
fourth team in seven seasons after being acquired in a trade last
month with the Packers, appeared overwhelmed. His second
interception of the fourth quarter--on a pass into triple
coverage--set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal with
three seconds left.

Mirer, who completed four of 11 passes for 28 yards, admitted
that his reads had been slow and that he felt uncomfortable in
the pocket at times. Nevertheless, Jets coach Bill Parcells named
him the starter for Sunday's game against the Bills, hoping that
Mirer can resurrect a once promising career just as Testaverde
did a year ago, when he threw for 29 touchdowns, led the Jets to
the AFC Championship Game and went to the Pro Bowl.

"Do you think we're going to put the white flag up?" a defiant
Parcells asked in his postgame press conference. "No way." A more
accurate assessment of the team's mind-set came later, however,
when a crestfallen Keyshawn said, "Never in a million years did I
think I'd lose my starting quarterback today." He then bolted
from the interview room while launching into an expletive-filled
tirade, sounding for all the world like a man who knew he'd just
lost much, much more. --Josh Elliott

Dispatches
GIANTS ROLL THE DICE

No team spent more on signing bonuses in the off-season than the
Giants, who doled out $47.17 million. Except for the additions
of quarterback Kerry Collins ($5 million) and tight end Pete
Mitchell ($575,000), most of that money went to keep intact a
team that finished 8-8. (The six teams with the next biggest
bonus payouts all made the playoffs last season.) For salary-cap
calculations, bonuses are prorated over the life of the
contract, meaning that New York could be hamstrung in future
years if its homegrown talent doesn't produce....

There is little doubt that the Colts, 31-14 winners over the
Bills, are the most improved team in football. With six new
defensive starters, Indianapolis sacked Doug Flutie five times.
Defensive end Chad Bratzke, a free-agent pickup from the Giants,
had three of those sacks, proving he can be a force even without
former New York teammate Michael Strahan on the opposite side....

The Browns, who lost their opener to the Steelers 43-0, lead the
league in at least one stat. Their opening-day payroll,
including salaries and bonuses, was $80.32 million, $3 million
more than the runner-up Packers....

Green Bay selected cornerbacks with its first three picks in
last April's draft, and the third-rounder, Mike McKenzie of
Memphis, won a starting job. Praised by general manager Ron Wolf
for the extra time he spends studying the game, McKenzie had
nine tackles and an interception in Green Bay's 28-24 win over
the Raiders. "I'm a big fan of the game," says McKenzie. "If you
ask me to watch tape of [Oakland wideout] Tim Brown, who I've
been admiring for years, that's fun."

The End Zone
GIMME AN F...

John York, the new 49ers vice president and husband of principal
owner Denise DeBartolo York, ordered team jerseys for everyone in
the club's offices to wear to work on casual Fridays. "What's
next?" one front-office veteran said. "Pep rallies?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Cleared for Landing Jets running back Richie Anderson takes the high road to a 27-yard touchdown in the first quarter of New York's 30-28 loss to the Patriots (page 102). [Leading Off]COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Taking more chances by throwing downfield, McNair passed for a career-high 341 yards.COLOR PHOTO: JOSE R. LOPEZ/THE NEW YORK TIMES Testaverde's crippling injury left the Jets' Super Bowl hopes in limbo.

the buzz

1. INDISPENSABLE A year ago, who would have thought that the
Jets would be taking Sunday's loss of injured quarterback Vinny
Testaverde so hard? Coach Bill Parcells would be wise to pluck
old hand Jeff Hostetler, who can pick up a system as quickly as
anyone, out of retirement. "He knows where I am," Hoss said on
Sunday night. Parcells also knows that Hostetler is 38 and
hasn't played since 1997. "You just can't dial a quarterback
into the system," Parcells said on Monday.

2. THE LION KINGS No Barry Sanders. Wideout Herman Moore goes
out in the first quarter with a knee injury. Sanders's
replacement, Ron Rivers, runs for 96 yards. Third wideout
Germaine Crowell catches seven passes for 141 yards and two
touchdowns. The Lions win at Seattle in Seahawks savior Mike
Holmgren's debut. Go figure.

3. NO MAS Bucs fans can only hope Trent Dilfer is finally
finished as Tampa Bay's quarterback. He single-handedly cost his
team a victory against the Giants, whose offense amassed only
four first downs and 107 yards en route to a 17-13 win. The New
York defense ran back a Dilfer fumble and an interception for
two touchdowns. Then came the most ridiculous Dilfer
interception ever: He scrambled backward and across the field,
and then, as he was falling out-of-bounds, threw the ball right
to Giants cornerback Percy Ellsworth to set up a New York field
goal with 2:50 left. How can coach Tony Dungy not bench Dilfer
for good?