That worked for a year, when McNair led the Ravens to a 13-3 record and the team's first playoff appearance in three seasons. But months after an injury-plagued 2007 season, the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback walked into a meeting with teammates yesterday and shocked them by announcing his retirement.
McNair, 35, who was considered "a warrior" by teammates for his ability to battle through pain and injuries, said at a hastily arranged news conference that his banged-up body wouldn't allow him to continue playing.
"It was a hard decision, but I think it's a good decision," McNair said. "I'm always a team player first. Mentally, I could go out there and play. But physically, I just couldn't do it anymore - not to the capacity that I need to help my teammates win a football game."
Teammates gave McNair a standing ovation during the emotional morning meeting. And then they took the field for their first practice under new coach John Harbaugh.
Hours later, players still couldn't believe the news.
"It's shocking," said receiver Derrick Mason, who was McNair's teammate for 10 years. "I thought I was going to get at least one more year" with him.
Asked who is his starting quarterback, Harbaugh said: "We lost our incumbent, and now it's wide open."
The Ravens were expected to take a quarterback in the draft April 26, but now there seems to be more urgency to do so.
Boller will be a free agent at the end of the season, and Smith is entering his second season in the NFL.
The Ravens might have to consider trading up from the eighth overall pick in order to take Boston College's Matt Ryan, the consensus top quarterback in the draft, or they could choose to sign a free agent.
"This has no impact on our plans," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of McNair's retirement. "This will not impact our decision in the draft - not one iota. I had the opportunity to speak to my staff. ... They felt the same way."
During his 13-year career, McNair led the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl in 1999 and was named the NFL's co-MVP in 2003. He is one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 30,000 yards and rush for 3,500 yards.
Drafted in the first round in 1995, McNair redefined the quarterback position with his ability to shrug off pass rushers with his strength and sprint for a first down or throw deep downfield. Nicknamed "Air McNair," he won 91 games and threw for 174 touchdowns and 119 interceptions.
"He's the best player I've ever played with," said Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle, who played with McNair for the Titans. "He's a sure-fire Hall of Famer. It hurts because Steve was like a mentor to me."
Said linebacker Ray Lewis: "There is no greater warrior or player with a bigger heart than Steve McNair."
The Ravens acquired McNair in June 2006 by trading a fourth-round pick to the Titans. It involved a 38-day stalemate in talks that included McNair being locked out by the Titans, a team he quarterbacked for 10 years.
McNair, who was the most decorated quarterback to ever play for the Ravens, signed a five-year contract, which included an $11 million signing bonus.
In 2006, McNair guided the Ravens to a 13-3 record, the most wins in franchise history, with an unflappable demeanor and clutch play. But his season soured in a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, when he was intercepted near the goal line.
McNair injured his groin early in the 2007 season opener and was limited to six games after developing shoulder and back problems. In going 2-4 as a starter last season, he completed 133 of 205 passes for 1,113 yards and committed 11 turnovers (four interceptions, seven fumbles).
In his final game, McNair had three turnovers Nov. 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals and failed to lead a scoring drive. Afterward, a devastated McNair said he "probably would agree" if the coaches replaced him with Boller.
McNair was sidelined the rest of the season with a shoulder injury and had rotator cuff surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder in December, which is when he began considering retirement.
One of the NFL's most-injured stars, McNair has had at least seven surgeries since becoming a starter in 1997 - (in order) his right knee, lower back, left big toe, right shoulder, left ankle, sternum and torn rotator cuff.
"It's been a long road, but I've been fortunate to surround myself with great people, great coaches, great teammates and great family," said McNair, who was scheduled to make $4 million this season. "My career speaks for itself. I can reflect back on it and not change a thing. I played the game with a lot of passion and a lot of heart, and it showed over the course of my 13 years."
He said he will return to his home in Mississippi to help wife, Mechelle, raise their four kids. "I can become now the father I need to be to my kids," McNair said.
He said he leaves the game with no regrets.
"It's a sad and emotional day for me. I'm trying to do the best I can to hold it in," said McNair, whose voiced cracked a few times during the news conference. "But at the same time, I'm opening up a lot more doors for the future I got ahead."
Years in NFL: 13
Personal: Lives in Mississippi with wife, Mechelle, and four sons. Went to college at Alcorn State. Was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1995 draft. Gives money to Boys & Girls Clubs and scholarships to his football camps through the Steve McNair Foundation.
Played last two years with the Ravens, leading the team to a 13-3 record and the playoffs in 2006. Started all 16 games that year. In 2007, played in just six games because of injuries and had more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (two).
In 11 seasons with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans:
McNair went to three Pro Bowls and led the team to the Super Bowl during the 1999 season. He is one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 30,000 yards and rush for 3,500.