Out of the playoffs, Oilers plot changes McNair appears ready to take over at QB


HOUSTON -- Cornerback Cris Dishman calls it a black cloud. A big, nasty one. One that turns two-point wins into one-point losses. One that causes fumbles in the red zone. One that has followed the Oilers all season, and turned a 5-2 start into Christmas at home.

Exactly when the Oilers' promising season went south is a matter of opinion. The 20-19 loss to Kansas City in the first game? The one-point heartbreaker against San Francisco? The blocked field goal returned for a touchdown on the final play in the loss to Seattle? The original decision to go with Chris Chandler over Steve McNair? The constant specter of the eventual move to Nashville?

The bottom line is simple. The 7-8 Oilers knocked themselves out of the playoffs with back-to-back losses to Jacksonville and Cincinnati the past two weeks. And, with just one game left -- Sunday against the Ravens -- they're preparing for the off-season and a changing of the guard.

Although no one in the organization will admit it, Chandler likely has played his final game as an Oiler. Same for Dishman and offensive tackle Brad Hopkins, both of whom will be expensive unrestricted free agents. But Dishman and Hopkins still will start Sunday. Chandler will watch from the sidelines as McNair steps into the starter's role.

Could Sunday be the unveiling of Air McNair era?

Houston coach Jeff Fisher won't say. He says he'll deal with the quarterback situation after the season. But since a Chandler trade would free up nearly $2 million cap dollars, everyone else is reading between the broad lines.

"You can't put it out of your mind, but you can't think about it, either," McNair said of the possibility. "I'm just concentrating on this game. What will happen, will happen. I just can't speculate on what will happen. My focus will be on this game -- not next year. I want to leave this season on a good note."

The difference between finishing 8-8 and 7-9 isn't much when the team's goal as recently as a week ago had been to make the playoffs. Yet, it could mean a lot if the Oilers -- and McNair -- could end the season with a win.

Fisher gambled on Chandler's experience last week, but lost. The veteran played his worst game in two seasons, and Fisher was forced to bench him after his third interception. McNair came in and directed the Oilers' only touchdown drive in the 21-13 loss to the Bengals.

McNair has long been the people's choice, and center Mark Stepnoski even threw his support behind the second-year player, who is 3-2 in NFL starts, earlier this month. There is no question McNair's ability to run opens up the offense. He has run for seven first downs this season, five on sneaks. And, although he has thrown four interceptions, he, like Carolina's Kerry Collins, has yet to throw more than one per game.

Yet, his biggest plus is his patience and maturity. Being bounced in and out of the lineup is hard for anyone to take, but McNair accepted his role without complaint.

"This has been an up-and-down year," said McNair, who has completed 58 percent of his passes (69 of 119) for 959 yards and five touchdowns with four interceptions. "I've had to come off the bench and I've started some games. Then I have to sit back and watch. It's the role I've had to play, but being as competitive as I am, it's been a hard thing to do."

Fisher has been impressed by how quickly McNair has picked up the Oilers' system.

"He's been able to watch and learn from Chris and he's played a lot more than we thought," Fisher said. "Steve's started and won. He's started and lost. He's come off the bench to engineer a touchdown drive. He's been tugged at and pulled in all directions this season."

Now, it would seem, McNair has earned the spot under center. But while his future may be certain, the Oilers' isn't.

The team that lost five games by seven points or less is almost certain to lose three major players to free agency -- Dishman, Hopkins and safety Blaine Bishop.

Also, the Oilers still don't know where they'll be playing next season. Houston mayor Bob Lanier doesn't want to release the team from its Astrodome contract, yet it drew a franchise-low 15,131 fans for last Sunday's loss to Cincinnati. Playing as a lame-duck team for a third season could mean even smaller crowds and a bigger black cloud.

"You can put it so many ways," McNair said. "We can't get over the hump. You can call it black cloud. There are a lot of ways to say it and a lot of scenarios. We've just got to win games. We have to execute."

Will that be enough to salvage what's left of the Oilers' season and set a better tone for 1997?

It depends on who you talk to.

"I don't think this game is any more important than any other," said Dishman, who has said he doesn't plan to return. "Everyone around here always thinks one game is the solution. One game isn't the solution and one game isn't the problem. If we'd have played all 16 games like they were the last game, we'd be in the playoffs."

But they aren't, said guard Bruce Matthews, who plans to be around for his 15th season. "There's a lot of disappointment," he said. "A win would at least ease a little of it."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Houston Oilers

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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