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Playing with pain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The physical examination Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair underwent last night to consummate a trade to the Ravens might be a mere formality.

But medical personnel who examine the 33-year-old veteran - who's likely to become the Ravens' starter - will be evaluating one of the NFL's most often-injured stars, whose catalog of serious injuries took up a full page in the Titans' 2005 media guide - and that doesn't count a couple more last season.

Name a body part and McNair probably has sprained, strained, torn, dislocated, bruised or ruptured it. There's also a good chance that he has had it surgically repaired.

The quarterback's injury history, along with his resilience and ability to bounce back and play well, is "the stuff of legends," said former Buffalo Bills special teams Pro Bowl player Steve Tasker, now a CBS-TV analyst who has covered Titans games the past few seasons.

"Steve has never really played healthy for a long time," said Tasker, who counts five knee surgeries and nine hand fractures among the souvenirs of his own 14-year career.

"It was either a foot or an ankle or his sternum. ... He told me once that there was a time where he had to sleep sitting up because he couldn't fully stretch out."

Since becoming the franchise's starter in 1997, the quarterback has had at least six surgeries involving (in order) his right knee, lower back, left big toe, right shoulder, left ankle and sternum.

Despite the serial injuries and medical interventions to repair them, he has started 125 regular- season games the past nine seasons, nearly 87 percent, and led his team to the playoffs four times.

However, the once-warm relationship between McNair and the Titans has been irreparably damaged, leading to the trade to the Ravens, who are giving up a fourth-round draft pick next year.

McNair's salary cap status (he would count more than $23 million against the Titans' cap without a restructured deal) and awkward lockout from the team's practice facility (a standoff that was resolved by an arbitrator ordering the club to let him work out) have him on the cusp of changing teams.

And although perseverance in the face of pain has defined McNair's career to date, the cumulative effect of those injuries raises questions about his future.

"Is every injury cumulative? I would say yes because the body heals with scar tissue, and scar tissue doesn't have the same flexibility as regular tissue," said Ken Locker, a former trainer with the Dallas Cowboys who is the marketing director for a Dallas-based sports medicine network. "And any repair probably isn't going to be as good as what you had before."

The notion that Locker rejects in general, and about McNair in particular, is that of a player being "injury-prone." But age can't be dismissed as a factor, either, he said.

"Simply because a player is older, he may have lost a step ... and if they miss a second, they can get creamed," Locker said.

A solid 2005

Last season, McNair's 11th in the NFL, was actually on par with his career averages in most categories; his 82.4 passer rating in 2005 was just a shade below his career rating of 83.3. And had he not missed two games (back and pectoral muscle), he would easily have posted personal bests for pass attempts, completions and yardage.

Former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck, who was McNair's teammate for nine seasons and now does radio work in Tennessee, said there's too much apprehension about the quarterback's fitness for duty.

"It's a misperception that Steve is fragile. He took a ton of shots last year and came out of it in decent shape," Wycheck said.

In 2005, the 4-12 Titans fielded one of their worst teams in years with a subpar running game, a thin receiver group that was weakened by injury to Drew Bennett, and an exceptionally young defense.

"In Baltimore, Steve should be able to save himself 25 or 30 hits just by being able to run the run the ball and having Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap," Wycheck said.

The former tight end from Maryland said that McNair also would benefit from being reunited with Mason, who left Tennessee as a free agent after the 2004 season.

"Those two wouldn't even have to study the playbook," Wycheck said. "They have a Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison thing going where they can make adjustments by simply giving a nod."

It was that kind of chemistry with Mason and Wycheck that allowed McNair to direct the Titans to a 5-0 finish in 2002 even though he wasn't able to practice. That he can get by at this stage of his career with fewer practice repetitions certainly would work in his favor if he winds up in Baltimore.

"I know [Ravens trainer] Bill Tessendorf, and they won't beat up Steve in practice," said Bud Tice, a former Bills trainer who is a hospital administrator in Omaha, Neb. "And the coaches need to put people around him who can help and not ask him to do some of things that he did six or seven years ago."

Such as take on defenders at full charge for a first down.

"He's already a case of arthritis waiting to happen, if it hasn't happened already," Tice said.

Like Unitas, too

John Lopez, a former trainer for the Baltimore Colts who works in sales in Maryland, said McNair would remind local fans of another hard-nosed quarterback.

"He's like one of the toughest guys to ever play the game, Johnny Unitas," Lopez said. "Where he gets hurt, goes back in the huddle and throws a touchdown pass to win the game. ... By the end of his career, Johnny's arm was shot but he could still get the ball downfield when he needed to. After the game, though, just don't ask him to a put on a sports coat."

So far, McNair's injuries have not markedly affected his velocity, but Tasker, the former special teams star, said that their deleterious influence may show up in subtle ways.

"It doesn't directly limit you on the field, but it does hurt your ability to prepare," Tasker said.

For instance, a rehabilitated knee injury might eliminate squats from weight training, or shoulder surgery will preclude arm curls. So an athlete has to work around those things to get ready to play.

"That shows up in small ways on the field," Tasker said. "And for an outstanding athlete, a guy like Steve McNair, that's very frustrating, and it can hurt your psyche."

Something to prove

Wycheck said that McNair's state of mind - considering what has happened in the offseason - should benefit his new team.

"Now you have a player who has a chip on his shoulder, who has something to prove to his old team," Wycheck said. "And when you tick off a guy like Steve McNair, you've got someone who you don't want to be going up against down the road."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

STEVE MCNAIR'S REPORTED INJURIES/SURGERIES IN NINE SEASONS

1997 MISSED NO STARTS

1. Bruised sternum

2. Bruised left collarbone

3. Postseason arthroscopic right knee surgery

1998 MISSED NO STARTS

4. Bruised, swollen right elbow

5. Hip pointer

6. Turf toe (left)

1999 MISSED FIVE STARTS

7. Ruptured disc in lower back, required midseason surgery

8. Turf toe (left)

9. Left big toe surgery

2000 MISSED ONE START

10. Bruised sternum

11. Sprained right thumb

12. Sprianed left knee

13. Sprained left ankle

14. Bruised left shoulder

15. Right shoulder infection

2001 MISSED ONE START

16. Bruised right shoulder

17. Sprained right ankle

18. Sprained right thumb

19. Bruised left elbow

20. Back spasma

21. Postseason right shoulder surgery

2002 MISSED NO STARTS

22. Sore back, head, neck

23. Turf toe (right)

24. Strained ribs

25. Sore back

26. Bruised left ankle surgery

2003 MISSED TWO STARTS

27. Sprained left knee ligament

28. Dislocated right ring finger

29. Strained right calf.

30. Sprained left ankle

31. Postseason left ankle surgery

2004 MISSED EIGHT STARTS

32. Bruised sternum

33. Sternum surgery

2005 MISSED TWO STARTS

34. Back spasms

35. Strained right pectoral muscle

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