At the start of Wednesday's practice, Ravens players lined up on the sideline to begin their warm-ups across the field.
But everyone waited.
They stood there shoulder to shoulder as quarterback Steve McNair moseyed over to the team in his typical, laid-back manner.
"We go when you go," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said, bringing a smile to McNair's face.
Carrying their best record in team history, the Ravens (10-3) have taken their cue from McNair all season.
Never before has a Ravens quarterback become the pulse of the team. The Ravens are calm in adversity, tough under pressure.
It's McNair's steady demeanor that has kept the Ravens as level-headed as ever, even on the brink of clinching a playoff berth today against the Cleveland Browns (4-9).
"He's a big part of why we take the personality that we take on," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's not about statistics. It's more about a mind-set when we're out there on the field."
Statistics say McNair has made an average impact.
He's 13th in the NFL in quarterback rating (83.1). His 2,578 yards passing rank 16th, and his 13 touchdowns are 20th.
But his teammates know otherwise.
"No matter what he does wrong, it's just a matter of time [before] you sit back and say, 'OK, something is going to happen, because [the offense has] the ball,' " linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I think that's the beauty of our offense right now, that they do have a leader with that type of calmness to keep them calm when things might not be going particularly well. Right now, Steve McNair is the nucleus over there and he's doing a heck of a job with that."
The numbers that have always defined McNair have been wins.
In 10 victories, he has completed 64 percent of his passes, throwing 12 touchdown passes and five interceptions. His quarterback rating has been 90.2
In three losses, he has connected on 59.3 percent of his throws, passing for one touchdown and four interceptions. His rating dips to 55.4.
"It all starts with me," said McNair, the third-winningest active starting quarterback behind Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. "If I don't play well, this team doesn't play well. That's the attitude I take."
McNair seems to play his best when there's the most pressure, exhibiting a certain coolness that trickles throughout the team.
The first sign of this came in the Ravens' last meeting with the Cleveland Browns, when McNair led a game-winning 12-play, 47-yard drive in the final minute to rally the team to 15-14 victory.
A week later, McNair hit Heap for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining to deliver a 16-13 comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers.
It marked the first time an NFL team had won back-to-back games with scores in the final minute of regulation since the New York Giants did so in 2001.
"I think that he has brought a confidence to this offense and confidence to that team," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "In particular, early in the season when the team was behind, he was able to come in and engineer those scoring drives. That just built the confidence at that point and I think it has continued to build."
McNair has proved as tough physically as mentally.
How many times have the Ravens seen McNair run the ball and take a hit to make a critical first down? Ten of his runs have converted third downs.
Then, last Sunday in Kansas City, McNair was the one who hammered cornerback Patrick Surtain on a fumble return, stopping him before he could go deep in Ravens territory.
"The first thing that stands out about him is his toughness," quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel said. "He's an unusual guy that way."
It's a toughness complemented by football smarts.
Even when he's not producing game-breaking deep throws, he's not forcing the ball to put the Ravens in a position to lose games. McNair hasn't thrown an interception in four consecutive games, a string of 142 passes that represents the best streak in his 12-year career.
"The formula for winning isn't just making big plays on offense. It's about helping keep your defense off the field," Neuheisel said. "He understands the game in terms of what it takes as an offense to effect victory, not necessarily affect stats."
That's what the Ravens envisioned when they traded for McNair, a quarterback who could turn around a 6-10 team into a playoff one as much with his status as stats.
"I think Steve has created a demeanor for the whole team," coach Brian Billick said. "We're a pretty boisterous team. We have some personalities. On the defensive side, even though we've got some guys who have a lot of passion for the game, I think Steve's demeanor has even tempered [them]. But it's not dispassionate; there's a difference. It's been very good for this team."
This week's playoff scenarios
Ravens can clinch AFC North title with:
1. A win and a Cincinnati loss or tie (Bengals play tomorrow night).
2. A tie and a Cincinnati loss.
Ravens can clinch playoff berth with:
1. A win or tie.
2. A Cincinnati loss or tie and Ravens clinch strength-of-victory tiebreaker over N.Y. Jets.
3. A Denver loss or tie and Ravens clinch strength-of-victory tiebreaker over N.Y. Jets.
4. N.Y. Jets and Cincinnati lose or tie.
5. N.Y. Jets and Denver lose or tie.
6. New England and Jacksonville lose and Cincinnati loses or ties.
7. New England and Jacksonville lose and Denver loses or ties.
Quarterback Steve McNair has been the X-factor in the Ravens' 10-3 season. Here is a comparison of his statistics in the team's wins and losses (including the loss to the Panthers, during which he left because of injury late in the first quarter):
Stat Wins Losses
Passing yards 218.2 132.0
Completion pct. 64.0 59.3
Yards per att. 6.9 4.9
TD passes 12 1
Interceptions 5 4
QB rating 90.2 55.4