- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — All it took was a quarterback.

The names of Baltimore Ravens passers never inspired confidence in teammates or struck fear in the hearts of opponents: Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, Jeff Blake, Chris Redman, Elvis Grbac, Tony Banks.

Even in the Ravens’ Super Bowl season of 2000, the record-setting defense set the tone and took the credit. Caretaker quarterback Trent Dilfer was charged mostly with not messing up.

Ravens fans suffered — as did the reputation of coach Brian Billick — because of their team’s chronic inability to throw the football.

Enter Air McNair.

Veteran quarterback Steve McNair has orchestrated the first 4-0 start in franchise history, leading last-minute, game-winning drives in back-to-back weeks to keep his new team perfect.

“He’s playing like a dog, ain’t he. He’s playing good,” running back Jamal Lewis said. “That’s one of the reasons he was brought here. He’s been doing that for years. To me, it’s nothing surprising. I’m happy to be on the same team with him and in the same backfield with him.

“We’re 4-0 now, but I can’t wait to see us when [the entire playbook] is in and we have this thing running like a fine-tuned machine.”

The Tennessee Titans assumed McNair’s best days were behind him and in the offseason traded the 2003 co-MVP to the Ravens in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

Under Billick, the Ravens never had a quarterback who could perform during crunch time. The past two weeks, McNair demonstrated he had plenty of one thing Ravens quarterbacks long had been missing: poise under pressure.

On Sept. 24, McNair completed six of nine passes for 52 yards on a final drive to set up a Matt Stover field goal with 20 seconds remaining that gave the Ravens a 15-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

On Sunday, McNair delivered again in the fourth quarter against the unbeaten San Diego Chargers.

With the game on the line, McNair drove the ball down the field, completing 4 of 5 passes for 43 yards and running 12 yards for a first down. He capped it off with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap with 34 seconds remaining.

The result: a 16-13 victory, a still-perfect record and a sense that the Ravens finally had found their man at quarterback.

“Steve McNair is a big-time player,” said Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, whose team faces the Ravens on Monday at Invesco Field. “He obviously has made a couple big drives at the end of the game, with less than a minute to play, that have turned out to be a difference. He is a quarterback with a lot of experience. He is a great leader, a guy I had a chance to be around at the Pro Bowl, and a guy that I really like.

“When you’ve got a guy like that leading your team, that’s one of the reasons why Baltimore is 4-0.”

McNair’s numbers aren’t overwhelming: He ranks 24th in the league in passer rating at 75.4, 11th in touchdown passes and 23rd in passing yards.

In the fourth quarter, McNair has completed 23 of 36 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns for an 85.8 quarterback rating.

McNair, however, would prefer to eliminate the need for last-minute heroics altogether.

“Tune in early this time, we’re going to try and get things started fast and keep it going,” McNair said. “We don’t want to try and wait to the last minute and try and pull it out.”

The ability to make things happen is exactly what the Ravens hoped to get when they acquired McNair. General manager Ozzie Newsome was very familiar with the former Titans gunslinger because the franchise was in the old AFC Central for six seasons (1996-2001) with the Ravens.

“We knew from competing against him, two, sometimes three times a year, that he was a confident guy who played his best with the game on the line,” Newsome said. “He’s not the same player he was five, six years ago. He’s smarter and more patient. He’s not running around trying to make all the plays with his legs. He understands the passing game better. He can hold the ball and then deliver at the right time. He has been a really good fit for us.”

Coming off an injury-filled, 6-10 season with Boller and Wright at quarterback, Newsome and Billick were forced to upgrade to put the offense closer to par with the team’s exceptional defense — or at least improve it enough so that it wasn’t a liability.

That unit has allowed just three second-half points all season and ranks second in the NFL in total defense, allowing just 219 yards a game.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the heart of the league’s stingiest run defense, said no individual makes a team, but he acknowledged that McNair is a big part of the Ravens’ early-season success.

“I would not say one guy is the total reason, but I would say he is a huge part of it,” Lewis said. “Steve McNair is one of those leaders on offense who has taken our mentality to a totally different level. I will give him that much credit, but right now as a team we’re doing a lot of things that we should be doing to win.”

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