Three quarters of McNair feels lot less than whole

The Baltimore Sun

At the time, and for a long time afterward, it had seemed as if Brian Billick were laying down a solid case for temporary insanity.

The Ravens led the Arizona Cardinals by 17 points yesterday and the fourth quarter was approaching, but memories of last week in the same building against the New York Jets were still fresh. Plus, Kurt Warner apparently had slurped from the fountain of youth on the way to the stadium.

And here was Billick, going to the bullpen. Or, it could have been inferred, lighting a victory cigar.

Later, once you dug out of the avalanche of words from Billick, Steve McNair and Kyle Boller - and a handful of Ravens players - the move seemed plausible, sort of. Although a second straight slack-jawed crowd at M&T; Bank Stadium had to sweat out a rout-turned-nail-biter, the plan was more at fault than the player executing it.

So sure - why not? - an early rest for McNair couldn't hurt, and it's nice to know Boller can handle the closer's duties.

Nevertheless, there is now less reason than last week to feel comfortable about the Ravens' quarterback situation. Teams that are 2-1 shouldn't be creating this much unease at that position. You're either brave, optimistic or delusional to think McNair's health isn't going to hang over every game from now on.

Face it, you never imagined that in Week 3, you'd see Billick tell McNair, in essence, "If you can just give us three quarters ... "

It has been said before about this position, and we've got to say it again - even with that 2-1 record and after a 26-23 win: uh-oh.

For the record, McNair said that he felt fine, that he could have finished the game, that he's good to go next week, but that he agreed with his coach's choice: "We were trying to be smart with it today." He and Billick had talked about it in the third quarter: "I didn't want to put myself in harm's way, especially since we felt we were in control of the game."

Good enough, except that's not exactly how Billick remembered it.

"I could tell he was favoring it [his injured groin] a little bit," he said, adding that he saw something when McNair came away from center.

(True, the third was not one of McNair's better quarters, and the Ravens got a break when replay upheld a ruling that his arm had been moving forward when he'd been hit and lost the ball, negating what would have been his second fumble of the quarter.)

Billick said he didn't want to "push it over the edge and turn it into a two- or three-week thing" and was worried about "fatiguing" McNair and setting him up to get hurt.

Slight difference in interpretation there. Not quite enough to really split hairs over, though.

Either way, the Ravens were worried about McNair's getting through a game that he felt healthy enough to finish. They gave him the preseason treatment, taking him out the first chance they got and wrapping him in bubble wrap.

McNair didn't even hint that any of this bothered him. "I think, overall, it takes two good quarterbacks to get where we want," he said.

Who knew how much the Ravens would need that - even on days when McNair wasn't actually hurt?

It just so happened that Boller's warm-ups on the sideline precisely coincided with the tectonic shift in the game's momentum. The defense melted down, again, making Warner and Anquan Boldin look like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

The offense tightened up, again, still convinced that it can put teams away by giving up on the run and throwing it around, taking shots, forgetting where Willis McGahee was and what he'd done.

And forget a game ball. The Ravens need to send a case of champagne to the back judge who called the personal foul on the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson on the game-winning drive.

All things considered, sitting McNair was a brazen enough move to have dealt this team a serious wound had it lost yesterday's game.

Now that we've been reminded, once again, that the Ravens are going to ugly up every game no matter who or where they're playing, it's just as clear they're going to be walking a tightrope with their quarterback. Logic dictates they'll need McNair on the field as long as he can possibly go to give themselves the best chance. At the same time, it tells us the Ravens have to treat him delicately.

All of which means that, every game, Billick will be juggling these questions with all of the others: Is it safe to get McNair out of there? Can Boller finish the job? The defense can't unravel down the stretch every week, can it? One of these days, are we going to be unable to dodge the bullets we dodged against the Jets and Cardinals?

In the locker room yesterday, the smiley faces were in place, and everyone's stories were in sync. A win, again, was a win, regardless of aesthetics. And regardless of whether the healthy starting quarterback had been there at the end.

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