McNair works to elude rush of advancing years

The Baltimore Sun

In Steve McNair's mind, he will have a stronger season because this is his second year with the Ravens.

Yet his body constantly reminds him that this will be his 13th season in the NFL.

Beating the test of time is a continuing battle for McNair, the league's fifth-oldest starting quarterback at age 34.

But it's one that McNair intends to keep on winning.

"I feel every bit of the 13 years," he said as the Ravens completed their second day of training camp. "That's where the offseason comes in. You've got to continue to keep your body in shape to be able to come out here and compete with these young guys.

"It's all about mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter - no matter what situation you're in."

One of the biggest keys to a Ravens Super Bowl run is a healthy McNair.

Over the past decade, he has had at least six surgeries, including on his lower back, right shoulder, left ankle and sternum.

There are questions about whether the beating McNair took early in his career will catch up to one of the NFL's most-injured stars.

From 1997 to 2002, McNair missed just seven starts. From 2003 to 2006 - the time he reached his 30s - he was sidelined for 12 starts.

The past season was the first in which McNair started 16 games since 2002.

The Ravens say they have never doubted McNair's durability.

"Steve hadn't let me down yet," said receiver Derrick Mason, who has been McNair's teammate for nine seasons. "He's been through some excruciating pain, and he's been through a lot of things that a lot of guys [would have quit over]. Sometimes, Steve plays a lot better when he's hurt. When teams see him on the injury [list], I think a lot of teams blow that off and say you're going to get the best [from] Steve, regardless if he's injured or not."

Starting an older quarterback is not unusual in this era of the NFL.

Nine starting quarterbacks are over 30. Three (Brett Favre, Jeff Garcia and Trent Green) are 37.

"Obviously, at some point, you physically can't play this game. It ends for everybody," coach Brian Billick said. "But if you look around the league, Steve is by no means the oldest quarterback in this league. There are a lot of people that are counting on their older quarterbacks to take them to a championship. I see nothing related to Steve's age right now that would present any limitation to us."

Last season, there were limitations with McNair, but they had nothing to do with his age.

Because he wasn't traded from the Tennessee Titans until June, McNair didn't know the playbook at training camp, much less his teammates.

Now, McNair's fingerprints are all over the offense.

"It's a 180-degree turn. I feel comfortable," McNair said. "I'm not rushing like I was last year, trying to fit in with this offense. I've been a part of it for a year now. Last year, I was thinking a lot, like, was I doing the right things? Today, I know it."

The Ravens have noticed that the concerns of last season have been replaced with confidence.

That's why McNair should improve on his numbers from 2006, when he completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 16 touchdowns.

"It was like speaking a foreign language for him," offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel said. "Steve picked up things very quickly, but there's no substitute for experience. Now, he knows our offense so well that he probably couldn't even recognize the Titans' offense."

McNair might be wiser, but he is also older.

He is the graybeard of the AFC North quarterbacks and ranks second on the Ravens in age. (Only kicker Matt Stover is older at 39).

But constantly bringing up age to McNair, who is signed through 2010, doesn't seem to bother him.

"I bring it up a lot, too," he said with a smile. "You look at past quarterbacks in the NFL, and some of those guys didn't win the Super Bowl until they were 35 and 36. That is my motivation to keep going and keep playing. If I can continue to go out and compete on a high level, I'll play the game regardless of how old I am."

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