McNair could have playoff impact in Baltimore

Steve McNair is finally headed to Baltimore, where he could be the final piece of the playoff puzzle, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: May 24, 2006
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Two years ago, the Ravens felt they made the move that would put them over the top.

After Terrell Owens and his former agent failed to submit the paperwork that would have voided Owens' contract and made him a free agent, the Ravens worked out a trade with the 49ers. Ray Lewis and other Ravens felt they had done a good job of recruiting Owens at the Pro Bowl and that he'd be a good fit in Baltimore.

Naturally, because it involved Owens, the situation blew up and there was plenty of collateral damage. Owens whined to the league and got his way. The trade was voided, burning the Ravens. By the time the NFL ruled in Owens' favor, clearing the path for him to end up in Philadelphia, the wide receiver market had diminished, leaving Baltimore without other options. The Ravens went through a 9-7 season against a very tough schedule.

The Ravens are at it again this offseason, only this time, they got their man. It took a while, but Steve McNair is headed to Baltimore for what is believed to be a fourth-round choice, which is a steal if the team makes the playoffs. The Ravens have had a standing contract offer for McNair since the second day of the 2006 draft, but it took until now for the Ravens and Titans to agree on a trade. Under the deal with the Ravens, McNair will get an $11 million signing bonus and a $1 million salary for this season. That is significantly better than the $9 million he was scheduled to make with the Titans, a team that wanted him to cut his salary in half to lower his cap number.

Owens going to Dallas might be the headline acquisition of the offseason, but McNair heading to Baltimore isn't far behind. In many ways, McNair carries more weight than Owens because he's a quarterback. If he's healthy, you can pencil in two or three additional wins for the Ravens.

It's no wonder the Titans made his exit the most painful in years. The Titans don't want to hand a playoff spot to Baltimore by giving them McNair. There is still some bad blood between the two franchises. The Titans didn't like comments made by Ravens coach Brian Billick prior to a 2000 playoff game. The Ravens didn't appreciate those clips being shown on the big screen to inspire Titans fans during the game, which the Ravens won 24-10 on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXV.

What's a shame is how McNair was treated. Without question, he was the league's toughest player during his 10 years in Nashville. He endured about every possible injury. He'd miss practice yet he played like a Pro Bowler every Sunday. His career peaked with a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV, where he came within inches of forcing overtime against the Rams.

The sad part for the Titans and McNair is that he won't retire in a Titans uniform. He wanted to, but his contract had a $50 million option bonus strategically inserted to spur negotiations this offseason between the two sides. But the timing for a new deal was all bad. Collective bargaining extension talks were stalled as the bonus came due. With the Titans not knowing how much the cap would grow for the 2006 season, they opted not to exercise the option, forcing McNair's cap number for the 2006 season to shoot up to $23 million.

Ideally, McNair would have stayed in Tennessee for a year or two while rookie QB Vince Young learned as his understudy. The Titans have a young roster, but with McNair leading them for this season, they probably would have jumped from four to seven wins as a number of their younger players matured.

But by this point in the offseason, McNair staying with the Titans was a longshot at best. General manager Floyd Reese could try to talk McNair into staying, but Reese wasn't going to give McNair the $12 million this season that the Ravens were offering. For McNair to stay in Tennessee, he would have had to take a paycut, and why would he do that for a franchise that he had to file a grievance against just to be allowed in the building to work out?

The Ravens were prepared to wait until close to the start of training camp in late July if necessary. But getting it done now will allow McNair to get a jump on learning the Ravens' offense.

Adding McNair makes the Ravens the AFC's sleeper team for the playoffs. Ravens president Dick Cass caused a few people in the front office to squirm when he spoke about the Ravens' future before some prime season-ticket holders. He talked about the Ravens finances and said there was a two-year window for the team to win.

Quietly, the Ravens have been stacking the roster with big-name veterans over the past couple of years for some kind of run. In the past two offseasons, they've signed four players -- Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, defensive end Trevor Pryce and linebacker Gary Stills -- who have been to Pro Bowls. Add those to the list of current Ravens with Pro Bowl experience and that gives the Ravens an impressive 13 former Pro Bowlers.

McNair is now the 14th current or former Pro Bowler on the roster if the trade goes through, and he would be the most important. Despite his age (33) and health, McNair would be the missing piece. Adding McNair fills out the equation of being strong at the five most important positions on the roster -- quarterback, left tackle (Jonathan Ogden), defensive end (Pryce and Terrell Suggs), cornerback (Rolle and Chris McAlister) and wide receiver (Derrick Mason).

Those players are all leaders who -- with the exception of Suggs -- have been to Super Bowls.

Mason was sixth among wide receivers with 86 catches last season, and 2005 first-round choice Mark Clayton should develop into a good one this season. Pryce is an impact player at end but he won't be asked to make the sacks in the 4-3 defense. That's the job of Suggs. Rolle and McAlister are a talented cornerback tandem. Ogden is coming off an off season but he's still one of the league's most gifted blocker.

But McNair gives the Ravens what they've been seeking since their trip to Super Bowl XXXV -- solid quarterback play.

Despite one of the most unsettled receiving situations in the league last year, McNair put up adequate numbers: He completed 61.3 percent of his passes. He averaged 225.8 passing yards a game. He threw 16 touchdown passes in 14 games and had a 82.4 quarterback rating.

More than anything else, McNair is a threat at quarterback and that's what the Ravens have been missing. The Ravens have been waiting on Kyle Boller, but it is time to find a veteran to challenge him. The Ravens watched how the McNair situation unfolded in Tennessee and felt they had a chance to get him. They sat quietly until the second day of the draft, and once they had a two- or three-hour window, they made a financial offer that McNair couldn't refuse and the Titans refused to match.

McNair gives the Ravens a chance to challenge the Steelers and Bengals in the AFC North, and his addition puts them on the map again as far as the playoffs are concerned. As much as Owens signing in Dallas changed the balance of power in the NFC, McNair's arrival in Baltimore could have just as big of an impact on the AFC.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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