From ground control to 'Air' McNair not just passing fancy for Titans

If it's January, Steve McNair must be gimpy.

Fortunately for the Tennessee Titans, his passing game is not.


That's the calling card McNair and the Titans bring to M&T; Bank Stadium for tomorrow's AFC wild-card game against the Ravens. Tennessee's vertical passing game has wreaked havoc in the NFL this season and created an identity crisis of sorts for coach Jeff Fisher.

Just don't call this a passing team when you talk to Fisher, who raised the Titans to perennial Super Bowl contender on the wings of a stout defense and a punishing running game.


"We have over 1,600 yards rushing this season and a couple of 100-yard games," Fisher said, protesting the passing label. "We don't see ourselves as a passing offense; we see ourselves as an offense that can bring balance into the game.

"We're throwing the ball efficiently, but I don't think we're throwing it more than we have in the past."

Semantics. Though it's true the Titans (12-4) have thrown just two more passes this season than last - and run the ball 25 times fewer - it's also obvious that for Tennessee to have a chance to advance past the first round, it will need its Air McNair offense.

That's the offense that rolled up six straight 30-plus point games earlier this season and ranked fifth in the league in passing yards.

It is the offense that on consecutive weeks in October saw McNair throw for 391 and 421 yards against New England and Houston. Short of tight ends, the Titans went primarily with three- and four-receiver formations against Houston, when McNair produced his career yardage high.

McNair's ninth NFL season has been worthy of the league's Most Valuable Player award. He led the league in passer rating (100.4), yards per pass attempt (8.04) and third-down passer rating (117.7). His 24 touchdown passes in 14 starts are a career high, and his seven interceptions represent a career low since he became the starter in 1997.

If the arrival of McNair as one of the league's best passers was almost subtle, it was not coincidental. His evolution coincides with the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger four years ago from Denver.

McNair's early years in the league were marked as much by his ability to make big plays running out of the pocket as throwing. The offense relied more on steady Eddie George. But McNair's experience and Heimerdinger's system gradually altered the equation.


"I think every quarterback in the league about this time in his career starts seeing everything," Heimerdinger said. "I think he's probably more excited about the game at this point than he was when I first got here because it's not run on first [down], run on second, 'OK, Steve, go make a play on third.'

"We're asking him to make some plays on first, second and third down. So he knows we've got faith in him to do things."

Because of improved health, McNair was able to participate in more offseason work last year. That resulted in better communication with his receivers. In Derrick Mason, Justin McCareins, Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico, McNair has a versatile corps of playmakers.

"I think it was everybody coming in after the offseason working hard and taking responsibility," McNair said of his passing success. "The running game has not been up to par in the last couple of years, so we had to find another way to score. We brought some young guys in [at receiver] and they have been doing fine ever since."

The one constant in McNair's game is playing through pain. He arrives in the postseason with a strained right calf and sprained left ankle that caused him to miss two of the team's last three regular-season games. The injuries have affected his throwing mechanics, but after resting McNair last week, Fisher said his quarterback will be ready tomorrow.

"I am much less concerned than I was last week," Fisher said. "He was sore in the [Week 16] Houston game, but managed it well and adjusted his mechanics. It is really an experience to watch him adjust, especially with a leg injury."


Having a viable passing game might help the Titans cope better with the Ravens' punishing defense than they did in their 2000 season playoff loss.

"I think Steve coming along like he has with the vertical passing attack, that's something that we didn't have three or four years ago, and it's been very effective," George said. "We're very strong in the areas that we were once weak in."