McNair Shows Mettle

The teacher continued to give his prized pupil a lesson as Steve McNair and the Ravens defeated Vince Young and the Titans on Sunday in Nashville, Tennessee. The victory was the third straight for the Ravens improving their record to 7-2, their best mark ever after nine games. The game had many subplots including McNair returning to Tennessee (11 years w/ Franchise) after a nasty breakup this summer, the Titans growing under Young with results sometimes not being reflected in the standings, and the Ravens trying to get off to their best start in team in history. But the storyline I was most interested in was “The Battle of Friends” as Vince Young’s team took on his mentor Steve McNair’s team.

When I spoke with Vince Young at last year’s Heisman Trophy presentation he spoke very openly of how Steve McNair was like a “big brother” to him and that many decisions in his life during college were influenced by McNair. After striking up a friendship at a McNair football camp when Young was in high school, McNair gave him his number and told him “If you need anything, even if it is just to talk, call”. Young took McNair up on the offer and really relied on him especially when preparing for and during the 2005 College Football season, which was his 4th year at Texas. McNair was a good listener and Young appreciated McNair’s cool demeanor, laid back approach, “do whatever it takes” warrior mentality and game day leadership. Those traits came in handy for Young going into the biggest game of his college career in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Many dismissed Texas and Young’s chances against the talent laden USC Trojans (won 34 straight games and two straight national championships). They figured Young would wilt under the pressure, however he was ready for the challenge partly because of advice McNair had given him from his experience in Super Bowl XXXIV with the Titans. Young was a one man gang passing and running for a Rose Bowl Total Offense record of 467 yards with 3 TD’s on the ground including a game-winning sprint in the closing seconds. Young put on one of the greatest individual performances in college football history in the 41-38 national championship-clinching victory. Young never got too high or low in a game that had many twists and turns. He always relied on his handbook W.W.S.D (What Would Steve Do).

Going into the 2006 NFL Draft, Young was being divulged with questions by experts about his throwing release, wonderlic scores, running/passing ability, and any other “scout’s eye” criticisms. Young definitely could have used McNair’s insight, because he dealt with similar issues when he came out of Alcorn State in 1991 being selected in the 1st Round by the then Houston Oilers. McNair, 2003 NFL co-MVP, however was wrapped up in a vicious contract struggle that would ultimately end in arbitration and his begrudging trade to Baltimore. Ironically the Titans selected Vince Young for several of the same reasons they selected McNair in 1991 (Winner, Mobile, Leader, and Strong Arm). They were briefly on the roster together after draft, but the situation changed when changed with McNair going to Baltimore. McNair recently said “The perfect scenario would have been me tutoring Vince for a couple of years and then letting him take over, but that wasn’t the situation so we’ve got to live with it,” ”Regardless of what team I’m on and what team he is on, we are always going to have that relationship. He still calls for advice, and I still call to check on him. We still have that type of relationship.”

Well, everyone at LP Field and the rest of the NFL got a good look at the teacher and student on Sunday. The game began with an emotionally charged crowd paying homage to McNair with the scoreboard showing a tribute and fans erupting in a standing ovation of support for their former leader of 11 years. Once the game got down to business Young and the Titans capitalized on Ravens mistakes and penalties building a 26-17 halftime lead. The Ravens were uncharacteristically pushed around on defense giving up 26 points and 267 yards without their leader Ray Lewis (back). McNair and the Ravens responded by scoring the final 10 points of the game and shutting out the Titans in the 2nd half. McNair was especially brilliant in the 4th quarter in his first game against his old team. McNair’s third game-winning drive of the season started at midfield with 5:09 left in the game. He marched the Ravens into the end zone on four plays, the biggest coming on a 34-yard pass to rookie Demetrius Williams. On the touchdown pass McNair found his former Titans teammate Derrick Mason from 11 yards out for their first Ravens scoring connection. After the game Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick talked of McNair’s leadership, “His demeanor never ceases to amaze me,” Billick said. “I’ve never seen anyone with such amazing calmness.” You definitely see what the Ravens found in their veteran leader.

Not wanting to be out done, the pupil (Young) started a potential game winning drive from Titans 34 with 1:55 on the clock. He passed and ran moving his team into field goal range and growing before everyone’s eyes. The key play being a 17 yard scramble to set the Titans up at the Baltimore 31 yard line. In the end, Young’s team could finish the improbable victory when Trevor Pryce blocked Rob Bironas’ 43-yard kick with 33 seconds left. The game ended on a McNair kneel down with the mentor/teacher ending a story book comeback victory. The two quarterbacks and friends talked briefly on the field and then went to their respective locker rooms, but you know they would be in touch soon..

Both quarterbacks showed their team value with McNair setting season highs in completions (29), passing yards (373), and touchdown passes (three) and Young finishing with a workman like effort of 25 completions for 211 yards passing and 39 yards rushing with 1 touchdown. The numbers and win column maybe in the professor’s favor this time, but you have to think the apprentice will be back for another go-round in this friendly rivalry.

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Vick is First-Half MVP

I have been a proponent of Michael Vick for years since he was an electric Redshirt Freshman leading Virginia Tech single handedly to the 2000 Sugar Bowl and putting them on the college football map. Though he lost to Florida State in a close battle, he established himself as a one in a million prospect at the QB position with a rocket arm and blazing foot speed. However after Vick was selected #1 Overall in the 2001 NFL Draft critics have knocked him by saying All he can do is run with his 4.2 speed, but he is not a QB, winning games from the pocket. By the way, what is a real QB? (That is a topic for later discussion). All I know is that Vick did deserve to be the 1st player taken in the 2001 Draft even though he was not a complete product and that he has shown he is a winner at the NFL level (Over 60% winning percentage w/ 2-2 playoff record including a big win at Lambeau in 2002).

Now he is on a mission in 2006 to prove the naysayers (Haters) that he is a legitimate NFL QB, who can do more than run outside the pocket. While everyone is paying attention to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Vick is having a tremendous MVP type season. The change in Vick must be attributed to the Falcons improved WR play and Falcons O-Coordinator Greg Knapp and QB Coach Bill Musgrave developing an offense that works to Vick’s strengths (RB’s pounding the ball, Quick Reads, Spreading the ball around, and Rollouts/Waggles). The coaching combo has also emphasized good mechanics, patience, and trusting his WR’s. While Vick still does run (about 8 times a game), he is throwing the ball with extreme confidence and also beating teams with intangibles (leadership, heady play, etc).

The transformation of Vick’s 2006 season started after a bad 27-14 loss to the Giants on Oct. 15, which Vick called his toughest setback: seven sacks, four fumbles and an interception as the Atlanta Falcons gave away an 11-point lead. After the game Vick voiced his displeasure saying that he could be a drop-back passer if given the opportunity and that changes needed to be made. He responded by leading the Falcons to two big wins over the Steelers and Bengals and passing for more than two touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career. He finished with 38-of-58 passing for 523 yards and seven touchdowns in the games.

He now knows how to setup his throws with the run and his passing numbers through 8 games don’t lie (55.1 Completion Percentage, 1362 yards, 11 TD’s, 7 Ints and 19 Completions of 20 yards or more). He has led the Falcons to a 5-3 record and let’s also not forget that he is running the ball at a QB record pace, which is what makes him rare and keeps D-Coordinators up at night (576 yards w/ 2 TD’s). Vick is on pace to break Chicago Bears’ QB Bobby Douglass’ 32-year-old record of 968 yards set in 1972, which was challenged by Randall Cunningham (942 yards) in 1990.

I am not saying that Vick will run away with the 2006 MVP award at season’s end or that he is a finished product, but you have to like the new dimension to his game.  Through the first half of the season he has shown an ability to throw 25-plus times in a game while getting the ball out consistently, hitting his WR’s in stride, moving the chains, and most of all winning games.  By making adjustments, he is my first half MVP and defenses now have to develop a brand new game-plan for the NFL’s most dangerous and rare QB.