Previously, he was considered to be the Titans' liability. Now, quarterback Steve McNair appears to be the player who will put his team over the top.
Since coming off the bench to rescue the Titans in a final-drive victory in Pittsburgh four weeks ago, McNair has played some of the best football of his life. He followed his heroics in Pittsburgh with one of the top three performances of his six-year career, in an impressive win over the Giants. Now, after a matter-of-fact win over the Bengals, McNair and the Titans (4-1) appear to be a rested, healthy and peaking team for this Monday night's game against the Jaguars (2-4) at Adelphia Coliseum.
The Titans offense is back to its physical, ball-control ways, with Eddie George pounding out the tough yards. That much never seems to change, but McNair is adding a new dimension. Now, he would seem to be more than just an athletic quarterback who can beat you scrambling. Now, McNair appears to be a polished passer.
"As a total package now … it may have been his best game," coach Jeff Fisher said of McNair's performance against the Giants. "The question isn't about Steve; it's about our whole team. Can we do this again?"
This game was supposed to be one of the feature attractions of the NFL season. The Jaguars-Titans rivalry had achieved that kind of national prominence, but it has fallen quickly, the result of the Jaguars' early-season collapse. The Titans are a significant favorite to beat the Jaguars for a fifth consecutive time.
"We're playing physical; we're playing hard. We finally got that mysterious turnover situation under control. I'm not satisfied with the play, however," Fisher said after the win over the Giants.
In that game, the Titans had the look of a dominant football team. The new McNair was 24 of 35 for 293 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Meanwhile, the old Titans running game pounded out a 98-yard drive, and the combination of new and old gave the Titans a look of invincibility.
McNair remains the key. Everything else about the Titans would seem to be a proven commodity.
"Steve does such a great job handling what goes on outside of football," tight end Frank Wycheck said. "Obviously, he's the focal point of the team; he's the quarterback and he does a great job of handling all of the scrutiny and people getting down if he doesn't make a play that he should. He never loses confidence in his ability, and that's the kind of player he is. I'm glad he's on our team."
McNair's strongest suit would seem to be his resilience. He has rebounded from almost every adversity and fan criticism. As early as the first two weeks of this season, in a season-opening loss to Buffalo and an overtime win over Kansas City in which backup quarterback Neil O'Donnell came off the bench to rally the Titans, McNair was back in the hot seat. Fans were calling for O'Donnell to be the Titans starter.
"It just goes to show you this guy may have started off rough at the beginning of the season, but now he's focused and he's getting receivers to run the right routes and he looked great. He's taking over the huddle and being assertive and that's what it takes. Steve knows this team. I think this is a sign of things to come," fullback Lorenzo Neal said.
So, how do you beat the Titans? They have a smothering, big-play defense, a punishing running game, a sensational return game, and, now, a quarterback coming into his prime. Stop George? Or stop McNair?
"You look across at them," Neal said of opposing defenses, "and they're breathing hard. You hear them yelling at each other. They're trying to stop the bleeding by bringing in new guys. That's when you just keep pounding 'em."
"They line up and they run their plays. The sad thing is, going into the game you know exactly what they are going to run, and they basically went out there and ran it," Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn said of the Titans.
They, in fact, have the look of true titans. McNair would seem to be the finishing touch.