Calm McNair, Ravens sail on even keel

The Baltimore Sun

KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- --Confidence, apparently, has two faces. One looks like a whole lot of fun, and the other I actually trust.

In years past, we'd watch these Ravens celebrate a big win, a huge play or a new Jay-Z album with dancing, hollering and a buffet of revelry usually limited to Times Square on New Year's Eve. There's something different now, a post-game locker room vibe that's more smooth jazz than Kool & the Gang.

In fact, the mood after yesterday's impressive 20-10 win against the Chiefs wasn't a whole lot different from what we saw a week earlier, after a disappointing loss in Cincinnati. Defensive end Trevor Pryce suggested the Ravens were just tired - "I think we're just trying to get the hell out of here," he said - but I don't fully buy that.

It didn't really hit me until I watched quarterback Steve McNair spray some cologne on his chest. He gave the bottle four good squirts, and you could see the mist spread, a bit of what makes McNair McNair landing on everyone around him.

You can spot a good leader because you recognize his best qualities in those who follow him. It's why the Ravens defense plays as though its "heads are on fire," as Terrell Suggs says. And it's why on a day that McNair played his best game as a Raven, what passes as an offensive swagger has the same smooth, unchanging gait we saw early in the year.

McNair, who has made his share of mistakes this year and certainly could've punched in at least one more touchdown yesterday, isn't approaching these December games any differently from the ones early in the season, and we're starting to see how his approach could pay dividends down the road.

"Steve's one of those guys who's at a point in his career where he's just so steady," tight end Todd Heap said. "He's got the confidence about him, and he's that steady force. He sits in the huddle and whether it's third-and-15 or third-and-one, it's the same look in his eyes, like, 'We're going to get this done, guys.'"

Yesterday, no one in the huddle ever questioned that, not when McNair hit Mark Clayton for an 87-yard touchdown - the longest of the quarterback's 12-year career - and not when he rushed for four first downs and not when he put together a nine-minute, 16-play drive in the fourth quarter, the Ravens' most complete and impressive of the season.

"He's just really cool about it," Clayton said. "He knows we're going to get it done and that's how it is. We take off of that. He's a great leader, and we'll follow him all the way to the top."

Early in the season, we attributed McNair's weaknesses to his unfamiliarity with the offense. He said he knew back in training camp that the Ravens would jell offensively, and he's been comfortable with his teammates for a while now.

"It's not that we're more comfortable with him," Jamal Lewis said. "It's that he's more comfortable with us. He knows what we're able to deliver."

That new-guy-in-town excuse was tossed out the window several weeks ago. As the Ravens push through their final three regular-season games, players say their best performance is still ahead - and at this point, it has nothing to do with McNair's finding a new level of ease. What we're seeing now is the guys around him adapting McNair's sense of serenity.

"It's not a confidence factor," McNair said after yesterday's win, in which he posted his best completion percentage of the season and had a second-half quarterback rating of 152.1. "It's all about going out there and executing now. And that's what we've been doing."

He's the first to point out that even in his best performance, he has had plenty of help. Let's just look at the offensive line. These guys get more grief than any elected leader in the state, and they've quietly strung together a few TiVo-worthy games.

For three straight weeks, the line hasn't allowed a single sack. To put that in perspective, you need only look back at the past few seasons. Kyle Boller was sacked in eight of nine games last year and in 14 of 16 in 2004. In fact, Boller has landed on his back 77 times in 34 career starts.

By comparison, McNair is guarded better than the Hope diamond. Entering this season, the fewest sacks the Ravens allowed in a season was 35 in 2004. With three games remaining, this year's line has allowed 16. I mean, this is a unit that once gave up a sack in 23 straight games and they're managing to keep the league's most injury-prone quarterback standing upright in the games that count most.

The result is what we saw yesterday - an offense that keeps showing glimpses of what it's capable of and never seems to be discouraged by its failings.

"That's why he's here," coach Brian Billick said of McNair. "He's just a champion - always cool, always calm, under control. He's tough."

Confidence has a new face right now. And like the cologne, it's spreading everywhere. You can smell it. That calmness, that coolness. Treating December like it's September. McNair has been here before. He knows that it's the best way to prepare for January.

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