- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

It was late in the fourth quarter of last week's AFC divisional playoff game. The Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers were exchanging blows in a classic postseason football game. And Steve McNair knew he had to be on the field, in the huddle, guiding the Titans to what he hoped would be a game-winning drive.
But as Tennessee's offense took the field with 2:43 remaining and the score knotted at 31, McNair was stuck on the sideline, having his injured right thumb examined by team trainers. On the Titans' last possession, McNair had slammed his thumb into one of the Steelers' helmets, leaving it numb.
So, much to the astonishment of the 68,809 at the Coliseum in Nashville, Titans coach Jeff Fisher sent backup quarterback Neil O'Donnell in to take McNair's place at this crucial stage.
"I saw [McNairs] thumb," Fisher said. "They had to cut away some skin and the flesh that was hanging. I was concerned about the joint. He had no feeling. I was informed by our medical staff they didn't think he could grip the ball, so we got Neil ready."
Two unsuccessful plays later, McNair approached his coach and told him in no uncertain terms what he wanted to do.
"He said, 'Hey, I'm going to finish this game,'" Fisher recalled. "That has been the story all year with him."
And so the Titans' field general returned to the huddle, greeted by a roar from the home crowd. And while he failed to produce any points on either of his first two drives back in the game, McNair ultimately guided Tennessee down the field in overtime to set up Joe Nedney's game-winning 26-yard field goal.
A gutsy, perhaps even heroic performance. But nothing the Titans hadn't already seen.
"The man, to me, is a legend," running back Eddie George said. "I'm so glad we're able to advance so people can really appreciate Steve's performance and what he's done this year."
What McNair has done this year is play at an extraordinary high level despite suffering a smorgasbord of injuries, the likes of which would have sent most NFL players to the injured reserve list weeks ago.
There's a sprained toe. Bruised ribs. A sore back. And the latest, the thumb injury that prevented him from gripping the ball.
The injuries were severe enough that for much of the season McNair was unable to practice with his teammates during the week. He'd suit up on Sunday and lead the Titans to victory after victory, 11 in their past 12 games to be precise.
Along the way, the eighth-year pro from tiny Alcorn State amassed 3,387 passing yards, a 61.2 percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns and 440 rushing yards.
More significant than the numbers, though, was the leadership McNair exhibited in starting every game of the season despite his litany of injuries.
"Injuries are part of the game and I'm used to it," McNair said. "This is the style that I play being physical, running the football, making adjustments on the pass and avoiding the rush. Those sorts of things go with the total package of a quarterback."
Many around Tennessee lobbied hard for McNair to get NFL MVP honors. He finished third, behind fellow quarterbacks Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders and Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers. Still, few fans have come to recognize McNair as one of the top quarterbacks in the game. Just like everyone else on the Titans roster, he was bypassed for Pro Bowl honors.
Fans also may forget that McNair already has taken a team to the Super Bowl in fact, he came within 1 yard of winning the whole thing three years ago against the St. Louis Rams.
Perhaps now that Tennessee is back in the AFC Championship (where Gannon and the star-studded Raiders await), McNair's contributions will be recognized.
"Now we're on a bigger platform," George said. "It allows people to appreciate him for the type of player he is. Maybe he'll win some accolades."
But whether or not the rest of the world comes to appreciate McNair for what he is, the folks in Tennessee know what they've had since the franchise moved from Houston six years ago: a winner.
"I'm not surprised by what Steve does," tight end Frank Wycheck said. "He amazes us each and every week. He goes out there and lays it all out on the line. That's why guys respect him and lay it on the line for him because we know he is for us."


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