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07 Jul 2009
by Mike Tanier
Steve McNair's career-defining moment was a loss, his most memorable play a failure.
McNair never won a Super Bowl, but no quarterback ever lost one the way he did. McNair, league co-MVP in 2003, four-time Pro Bowler, earned the kind of respect losing Super Bowl XXXIV that most players only get from winning. In the coarse world of modern professional sports, where winning championships is the only praiseworthy feat and losers are mocked and derided, he proved that moral victories are still possible.
McNair signed the largest rookie contract in NFL history on July 22, 1995. One week later, he ran gassers on an empty field as his teammates watched.
It was part rookie hazing, part retribution for McNair's brief contract holdout. The quarterback ran ten 20-yard dashes back-to-back while players taunted and on-lookers cheered. By the end of the sprints – which occurred after a long day and week of practice -- McNair was starting to slow down. "I was a little bit tired," McNair said. "It's something you have to expect. I enjoyed it. It's going to make me a better player."
A week later, McNair entertained teammates at a barbecue by chasing and catching a live pig. "To be honest, it wasn't that hard," he said. "I'm just a country boy from Mississippi. That wasn't the first time I had caught a pig."
The rookie McNair was an enigma. He was both a small-school unknown and a victim of over-hype. Alcorn State lay far off the football map, but a Sports Illustrated cover story, a long list of NCAA records and the "Air McNair" nickname made McNair seem more like a fluky curiosity than a true prospect. He was a black quarterback, which was still noteworthy at the time. But following close on the heels of Warren Moon in Houston, he wasn't breaking new ground. His contract with the Oilers made him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL, but the gasser-running, pig-catching McNair remained quiet and humble.
Teammates expecting a brash rookie upstart got to know a different McNair in 1995. He was briefly rechristened "McMillionaire," and receiver Haywood Jeffries was one of many to make light of the new face with the $28 million contract. "He's definitely going to have to get in some of our card games," Jeffries said. "I have a mortgage to pay." When teammate Todd McNair told the rookie that he was a distant cousin, Jeffries said he "was trying to lie his way into the will." But after a few days of practice, teammates and coaches stopped talking about McNair's contract and began praising his preparation and approach to the game. "He's hungry and he's been studying," said offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome. "He's running very smooth." Rhome and head coach Jeff Fisher let McNair play a few series in a scrimmage against the Cowboys, and the rookie went 5-of-10 for 30 yards. After the team barbecue, he was besieged by autograph seekers, who quickly embraced McNair as the new face of the Oilers.
McNair won over teammates, coaches, and fans, but he couldn't win a starting job. The Oilers had a serviceable quarterback in Chris Chandler, and the climb from Alcorn State to the NFL was steep, even for a player like McNair. McNair would spend two years on the Oilers bench, not as a disappointment, but as an understudy. After those first days of camp, McNair knew he had to be patient. "I'm not going to say I should play my first year, my second year," he said. "I just want to learn things and get where I feel comfortable. I'm still making mistakes, but I'm going to do what it takes to get things corrected."
On the day he signed McNair, Oilers owner Bud Adams wasn't worried about an extended apprenticeship. He was taking a long-range view, listing McNair next to Oilers greats Billy Cannon, Earl Campbell, and Warren Moon. "Cannon, Campbell and Moon helped make the Oilers winners," Adams said. "When we drafted Billy, we won the first two AFL championships. When we drafted Earl, we almost reached the Super Bowl. When we signed Warren, he led us to the playoffs seven straight years. Steve's going to be in the same category. We knew he was a special quarterback when we drafted him. I know he's going to take us where we hope to go -- the Super Bowl."
Adams was right. McNair took the franchise to the Super Bowl. When he got there, he made a different kind of history.
Before One Yard Short, Super Bowls didn't end like that.
In the 1990s, saying you only watched the Super Bowl for the commercials didn't sound contrary or ironic. Games were salted away by halftime, usually by NFC powerhouses like the Cowboys or 49ers, though the Broncos had recently broken the NFC hegemony. Even hardcore football fans saw the Super Bowl as the frothy foam on the season, a game with high stakes but low entertainment value and a foregone-conclusion outcome.
One Yard Short was the fantastic finish that touched off a run of fantastic finishes. McNair and receiver Kevin Dyson started a trend. In this decade, we've grown fat on Adam Vinatieri field goals, David Tyree helmet-catches, and Santonio Holmes heroics. One Yard Short lives forever in our memories, but what was arguably once the Greatest Super Bowl Ever is now struggling to stay in the top five.
McNair didn't throw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXIV. He failed on a two-point conversion that changed the outcome of the game: Dyson lunged to tie the game on that final play (assuming the extra point), not win it. McNair's performance was statistically unspectacular. You had to see it to understand. "My hat is off to that guy," said Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who made the final tackle. "He left it all on the field," Fisher said. "He's a warrior. He's a battler," said Rams defensive end Kevin Carter. "The people who didn't know Steve McNair before will know him now," said Titans tight end Steve Wycheck.
McNair himself was philosophical. "It's sad to come that close and come up short after playing such a great game. That's the bad part of this game. Someone has got to lose, but why couldn't it be a tie?"
A tie would have fit McNair's career at that point. His first four seasons with the Oilers franchise were marked by 8-8 seasons –- three of them -– plus a 7-9 record his rookie year. The franchise lacked identity, moving from Houston to Tennessee and playing as the Tennessee Oilers for two years before becoming the Titans. The Oilers-Titans played in college stadiums and drew little national media attention. The franchise spent four years idling while Adams completed the Houston-to-Nashville shift, and McNair's record and stats were unspectacular.
By 1999, the Titans had a new stadium, but McNair was no superstar despite two seasons as a starter. Fans booed him when he fumbled in the first game in Adelphi Coliseum, but they warmed to their quarterback when he brought the team back from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Bengals. Four days later, McNair missed practice with back spasms that had bothered him since training camp. He practiced a day later, then felt more tightness.
He wouldn't play again until Halloween.
In McNair's absence, veteran backup Neil O'Donnell went 4-1 as a starter, setting the stage for a quarterback controversy. Young versus experienced, talented versus efficient, black versus white, first place versus another potential .500 season lost to development: locker rooms have been torn apart over far less. The Titans didn't splinter. "Neil is a great acquisition who's helped us get to this point," tight end Frank Wycheck said. "But Steve's our starter, that's been clear from the beginning. That's why there is no controversy. If there was still a question in the air, it might stir some. But there's not, and Neil understands that, too."
The Titans faced the Rams in McNair's first game back. McNair pounced on his opponent, throwing for two touchdowns and running for a third to take a 21-0 first quarter lead. Kurt Warner, who fumbled twice in the first quarter to set up Titans scoring opportunities, led a second half comeback, engineering a nine-play drive after an onside kick to set up a potential game-tying field goal with seven seconds left. The 38-yard Jeff Wilkins kick sailed wide right, and headlines trumpeted McNair's return, not Warner's comeback. "I don't think he was trying to prove a point," said receiver Yancey Thigpen. "I don't think he feels he has to prove a point ... He knew he wanted to come out and play well, and he did that."
The Rams and Titans were both in first place on that Halloween afternoon, but it would have been preposterous to suggest a Super Bowl rematch, let alone one with eerie parallels to that October game: the big lead, the long comeback, the final drive that comes up short. It was hard to imagine a more dramatic finale, but McNair, Warner, and their teammates provided one in January.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Later in the day, the storm surge breeched levees throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, touching off a national emergency.
Three days later, the Titans faced the Packers in a preseason game. McNair, the quarterback from Mount Olive, Mississippi, played three series against Brett Favre, the quarterback from Kiln, Mississippi. Then the pair turned their attention back to the relief effort.
Before the game, Favre and McNair filled a tractor trailer with bottled water, canned goods, and generators to ship to the Gulf Coast. McNair offered autographed photos in exchange for $100 donations. "It's a relief for me and all my family members and my teammates to go out and do all we can to help those people in shelters and making them at least feel comfortable while they're there," McNair said.
In the days to come, as the full impact of Katrina came to light, McNair increased his efforts. Media coverage and relief efforts centered on New Orleans, but rural Mississippi was hit just as hard and had far less infrastructure. "You still have Pascagoula and others, where Steve is from Mount Olive, that've been hit, too," McNair's business manager Raymond White said. "What Steve is trying to do is hit some of those rural areas where there might be only one gas station around, to help out people."
McNair organized a relief drive in Nashville. He and his volunteers hoped to fill six trucks with supplies. They filled twenty. They raised $80,000 in cash. "You have to be amazed because in a short period of time to put something like this together," McNair said. "My hat goes off to the people who came here who went through their closets and supplies and donated some things to send to people who don't have anything."
Between the preseason game and the relief drive, McNair flew home to flood-ravaged Mississippi. He returned to Tennessee optimistic. "I talked to some people, and they feel really strong about it, about the positives," he said. "It's all about rebuilding and starting fresh. That's the positive thing being taken out of it."
Peyton and Eli Manning also joined the relief effort, as did hundreds of other NFL players and thousands of professional athletes. The disaster revealed what's best about sports in America: wealthy athletes' willingness to give back, the kinship that underlies on-field rivalries, the healing that occurs when a community gathers for a game, even after a tragedy. McNair was among the first to offer relief, getting supplies to the Gulf Coast when they were most needed. The 2005 season was his among his worst as a quarterback: though he made the Pro Bowl, the Titans went 4-10 with McNair as a starter. Off the field, it was his best season ever.
Super Bowl XXXIV unfolded like the old fable of the tortoise and the hare.
The hare-quick Rams took a 16-0 halftime lead, then napped. McNair and the tortoise-slow Titans offense embarked on an erosive comeback. It took the entire third quarter for the Titans to score their first touchdown, failing on the two-point conversion. They got the ball back and drove for another touchdown. They tied the game in the final minutes with a field goal.
Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce erased 27 minutes of work with one long touchdown pass.
For the Rams offense, everything came easy. For McNair, every drive was grinding trench warfare. With top receiver Yancey Thigpen was injured, McNair had to rely on tight ends Wycheck and Jackie Harris, inexperienced receivers Dyson, Isaac Byrd, and Derrick Mason. Stalwart running back Eddie George offered four reliable yards and a cloud of dust, but McNair could only count on himself for big plays. He made them, scrambling 23 yards to set up the first touchdown, threading a deep pass over the middle to Byrd to set up another, refusing to go down on a sneak while fullback Lorenzo Neal shoved him forward to convert a fourth-and-1.
Big plays aside, the Titans crept down the field on rollout passes to Wycheck and Harris, quick in-routes to Dyson, handoffs to George in situations when most teams would abandon the run. It all worked, but the Titans offense burned time and timeouts. The Rams needed neither to reclaim a seven-point lead, to pin the Titans at their own 12-yard line (thanks to a kickoff return penalty) with one timeout and less than two minutes to play.
McNair's final drive was more methodical than heroic. A nine-yard pass to Mason over the middle. A seven-yard pass to Wycheck in the flat. An incompletion. Was this the birth of a legend, or clock-eating desperation against a prevent defense? The pocket collapsed, McNair scrambled, turned upfield to reach the first down markers, then cut to the left sideline to get out of bounds. Defender Dre' Bly twisted McNair's facemask to keep the quarterback from reaching the sideline, and the complexion of that final drive changed. The Titans had the ball on the Rams 45-yard line. They still had their timeout.
A Rams penalty gave the Titans five more yards. McNair scrambled right, broke a tackle, ran out of bounds for two yards. A quick curl to Dyson over the middle brought another first down. The game got sloppy in those final seconds. McNair nearly threw an interception to Bly, but Rams defender Kevin Carter lined up offside, erasing the play and giving the Titans five more yards. McNair picked up a Rams blitz, but George didn't, and McNair's hot-route pass to the inattentive George bounced off the back of his arm.
The next play could have been the greatest in Super Bowl history, if only the play after it succeeded. Words don't do justice to McNair's scramble, eluding two defenders, planting his hand on the turf to keep his his footing, throwing a strike to Dyson at the 10-yard line. It was breathtaking, and it took America to a place we had never been before: ten yards, one play, no timeouts, the Super Bowl in the balance.
McNair and Dyson connected once more, on a slant over the middle, for nine yards. "It was a one-on-one battle," McNair said of Dyson's attempt to elude Mike Jones. "They won the battle."
McNair was just 26 years old. We assumed the best was yet to come. In many ways, it was. The Titans finished 13-3 again in 2000. They reached the playoffs in 2002 and 2003. McNair led the team to the conference championship in 2003. McNair was a better quarterback in those later years than he was in 1999; he scrambled less, relied less on George, did more with his arm and mind for teams that weren't as good as the one that lost Super Bowl XXXIV. Age took its toll, and the cost-conscious Titans unceremoniously dumped McNair on the free agent market in 2006, but he wasn't finished. McNair turned in one of the best seasons of his career for the 2006 Ravens, leading the team to a 13-3 record, throwing for 3,050 yards, most of them on the same short passes he used to whittle away the Rams lead in the Super Bowl.
But McNair never reached the Super Bowl again. His image crystallized in January of 2000. The pass, the tackle, the reach ... this became McNair's moment.
It was an ugly game between two ugly teams. The Ravens, playing behind a patchwork line and with few offensive playmakers, could only muster three field goals. The 49ers, starting over-the-hill veteran Trent Dilfer and facing the formidable Ravens defense, managed just a touchdown. The Ravens, one year removed from the playoffs but enduring a lost season, hung on for a 9-7 win on an October afternoon in 2007. McNair was 29-of-43 for 214 yards, most of the passes (11 of them), short hitches to Mason, his favorite target in two cities. McNair, slowed by a groin injury and looking much older than he did in 2006, could move the ball, but he couldn't get the Ravens in the end zone. "It was frustrating. We'd get into the red zone and had to settle for field goals. We've got to do better. It's something we're going to have to work on," he said.
He never got the chance. McNair's chronic back problem flared up again after the Niners game. "I guess he slept on it wrong," coach Brian Billick said, stating that McNair would be a game-time decision the following week.
McNair wouldn't start again for a month. When he returned to the field, he was awful, throwing for just 63 yards in a 38-7 loss to the Steelers. Two weeks later, McNair was shelved for the season. That messy win against the 49ers, two bad teams trading punts and field goals, far from the playoff chase, was his last NFL win.
McNair retired in April of 2008. The headlines called him a role model and trailblazer. Columnists wrote of his resilience, grit, toughness. "I love him as a father figure," Vince Young said of the man who mentored him. "He played football the way it was supposed to be played," said Mason.
Many spoke and wrote about his legacy as a black quarterback, one who bucked the "great athlete who cannot lead" stereotype and was idolized by a generation that included players like Young. "When he came out in '95, not many people were taking a chance on a lot of quarterbacks that played at small schools, much less a black quarterback back when there were so many stereotypes about African-American quarterbacks," Mason said. "Can they lead a team? Are they smart enough? Can he be that franchise guy?' He was that kind of guy."
McNair's career taught lessons about race and about courage, but One Yard Short taught us something else. The sports culture has grown increasingly shrill. The schoolyard taunt of "loser" passes for learned discourse on talk shows and the Internet. "He never won anything" is the bon mot that tarnishes the legacies of non-champions in all sports. Fans are expected to forget everything a player like Dan Marino or Donovan McNabb accomplished, ignoring dozens of wins to dwell on one or two losses.
One Yard Short exposes those "he's not a winner" arguments for the suckerpunch they are, showing the keen edge that separates champions from also-rans. McNair earned immunity from such taunts that day, proving that he could, even though he didn't. Thoughtful fans can return to that moment when pondering the legacy of other players, who may have come up five yards short, or twenty, but could still see the end zone, still gave their teams a chance at glory:
A loss is not always a failure.
Losing a game doesn't make someone less motivated, less talented, less conscientious, less of a man.
There are elements of competition -– perseverance, sportsmanship, courage, effort -– that are just as praiseworthy as winning.
The circumstances surrounding McNair's death cloud his off-field reputation, but they don't change what he represented on the field. Leader, trailblazer, warrior, a mortal who came up just short of a championship, a worker who never complained, always battled, did what was best for the team. A man who played football the way it was supposed to be played, and by losing Super Bowl XXXIV, taught us how the game should be enjoyed.
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