THE CAREER arcsof quarterbacks Chris Simms and Steve McNair were poised to intersect on Sundayat Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Simms, 26,had been anointed as theBuccaneers' franchise quarterback--"Our goal is for him to be great, notjust good," says Bucs coach Jon Gruden--and McNair, 33, was trying toresurrect his career in Baltimore after spending the last 11 seasons with theTitans franchise, the last few beset by injuries.
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 2006 issue
Young man rising,older man falling. It is the natural order of things when the time isright.
Clearly the timeis not yet right.
McNair's playvalidated the Ravens' plan to challenge Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFCNorth. He expertly dissected Tampa Bay's respected defense while efficientlythrowing for 181 yards and a touchdown in a 27--0 romp. "Steve has seeneverything," said Ravens All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden after the game."Nothing flusters him. Before the game, he told us, 'We're going to go outthere and make some plays. That's the way I play football. Y'all just need tofollow me.'"
Simms, meanwhile,struggled. He threw for just 133 yards, with three interceptions, and emergedwith an abysmal 30.5 quarterback rating, injecting a harsh dose of reality intothe Bucs' offensive expectations.
It was aparticularly satisfying debut for McNair, who just last April was denied accessto the Titans' training facility as Tennessee tried to restructure the finalyear of his deal. McNair went home to his native Mississippi, wounded andangry. "I understand that pro football is a cutthroat business and youshould expect the worst," McNair said following practice last week."But after 11 years with one franchise [in Tennessee, and before that inHouston], I never expected it to happen like that, not being able to work outat my own facility after everything I did."
In early June hewas traded to the Ravens, reuniting him with wideout Derrick Mason, with whomhe played from 1997 to 2004, and bringing him together with All-Pro linebackerRay Lewis, who for years had dreamed of having McNair on the Ravens."Imagine if we had two leaders on this team," Lewis would tell McNairin phone conversations. "Think about what we could do."
The late trademeant that Ravens coach Brian Billick, offensive coordinator Jim Fassel andquarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel had to force-feed the Baltimore offense toMcNair. The quarterback spent several weeks commuting to Baltimore from hishomes in Tennessee and Mississippi, putting in classroom time five hours a day,three days a week with the coaches when they all could have been on vacationawaiting training camp. "He is the most unpretentious, quote-unquote,superstar I've ever met," says Neuheisel. "He came in here and said,'What can I do?'"
McNair has beento a Super Bowl and has a league MVP award. He has played enough football toquickly master a new offense, but every team has a distinct language for itssystem. It's as if he were being asked, in three months, to learn to conducthis business in Russian instead of English. "Football is football,"says McNair, "but the verbiage is totally different. I still revert toTennessee language in the huddle sometimes, and the guys correct me."
Even while he waslearning the offense, his presence was enabling the Ravens to expand theirplay-calling options. They now have far more scrimmage-line checkoffs that playto McNair's experience, and they incorporate more moving pockets to utilize hismobility. And after missing eight games in 2004 with a sternum injury and twolast year with other ailments, McNair has convinced the Ravens he's still adangerous passer. "When I plant my foot on a curl, I better get my headaround, because the ball is going to be there," says wideout MarkClayton.
The opening-gamewin was a huge lift for a franchise that had gone just 42--38 in the regularseason since winning the Super Bowl in 2001 and has spent the last threeseasons struggling to develop quarterback Kyle Boller. "Not taking anythingfrom Kyle," said veteran tailback Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 78 yards (a4.3 per-carry average) on Sunday, "but when you've got a young guy inthere, you feel like you've got to tell him what to do. A guy like McNair, youjust wait and let him tell you what to do."
McNair'sexperience was vital in Sunday's win, which ended an 11-game road losing streakfor Baltimore. The Bucs, with rush end Simeon Rice and linebacker DerrickBrooks, are among the elite defensive teams in the NFL and present a particularchallenge because of their constant presnap movement. To offset the Bucs'schemes, Fassel gave McNair the option to flip sides--run or pass right orleft--on nearly every play with an audible at the line of scrimmage. "Andwe did it a ton," said tight end Todd Heap.
The Ravens andMcNair set the tone for the game on the first possession, going 80 yards in 14plays to take a 7--0 lead. The drive consumed more than nine minutes on thegame clock on a day when the heat index approached 100Àö. "Nine minutes onthe first drive," said Ray Lewis. "That tells you the offense has gotyour back." The Ravens had only one drive longer than that in 2005.
Simms's afternoonwas as ugly as McNair's was attractive. His offensive line was depleted byinjuries to both starting guards, and he faced a formidable Ravens' defensethat once again had a healthy Ray Lewis (he missed 10 games in '05 with a tornright hamstring) and safety Ed Reed (he missed six with an injured rightankle).
With his teamdown just 7--0 at the start of the second quarter, Simms tried to force a deepball to Doug Jolley on the right sideline. Ravens corner Chris McAlister, whowas responsible for deep coverage of the right third of the field on the play,easily intercepted the ball and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown, givingthe Ravens a 14--0 lead. It may as well have been 40--0, given the Bucs' lackof offense.
Two days beforethe game Simms had reflected on three years spent waiting to begin a season asthe starter. In spring 2005 the southpaw had worked long hours withquarterbacks coach Paul Hackett on fundamentals such as the placement of hishands under center (left hand on the bottom instead of on top) and his stanceat the snap (square and wide instead of open and narrow). The work paid offwhen Brian Griese was injured and Simms took the Bucs to the playoffs. Thisyear the job was Simms's from the start. "It's been a grind getting to thispoint," he says, "but you don't think about that big picture every day.You just think about the now."
In the now, Simmsand the Bucs need vast improvement soon; McNair and the Ravens have the kind ofpromise they last showed five years ago.
"Two leaders,that's what we talked about," said Lewis as he walked out of the Ravens'locker room, resplendent in a shimmering tangerine suit. "Couldn't draw itup any better."