When Steve McNair made his playoff debut in Nashville 18 days ago, against Buffalo, it was obvious the Tennessee coaches had restraints on their young quarterback. The passes he was allowed to launch were little more than glorified handoffs.
In McNair's next game, at Indianapolis, the restraints were loosened a little bit, but credit for the victory belonged more to power runner Eddie George and the defense than to him.
Then, last Sunday in the AFC Championship Game in Jacksonville, the Titans surprised the Jaguars by opening with a small barrage of passes. There was nothing crazy, but six of Tennessee's first eight plays from scrimmage put the ball in the air.
With Jacksonville ahead by three points at halftime, McNair opened the third quarter with seven passes in his first 12 plays.
Clearly, as the Titans kept advancing, their offensive brain trust gained more confidence in McNair.
"I think what happened," says McNair, "is that when we beat a great team like Buffalo, the confidence of all of us went up a lot. That game was a real confidence booster for us. It was our first step in our run at the Super Bowl."
McNair admits, "Five years ago I would have had trouble handling this." Now, he understands. "I know that while I passed for 4,000 yards in each of my four years in college, I may not throw 24 passes a game now. When you have a great back like Eddie George, a complete back, you don't have to put up great numbers as a quarterback. Our job is to move the chains."
It all makes a lot of sense. The Bills came into their game against the Titans daring McNair to beat them with his arm. He couldn't. For that matter George couldn't beat them with his legs, either. It took that dreaded kickoff return, "Home Run Throwback," to do it.
Once past the Bills, Tennessee began to feel better about itself. Those feelings haven't subsided, due in great degree to McNair's growing comfort with his ability to do enough for a Titan victory.
His passing has been little more than a side dish, 300 yards in three games. It's what he might do that presents such a problem. Think of Doug Flutie 10 years younger, four inches taller and with 50 pounds of additional muscle and a much stronger passing arm. That's McNair, minus some savvy, but that's growing, too.
Dom Capers, in his first year as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator, installed his trademark zone-blitzing package for the Jaguars this season and it nearly doubled their amount of sacks, from 30 to 57.
When Capers unleashed it against McNair last Sunday, it fizzled, dropping him just once. There were a half dozen other times, however, when McNair escaped.
The fact is that McNair is not only an excellent runner, he's so strong that blitzers bounce off him or he pulls away from their tackles. There are times when he gets careless with the ball, as he did against Jacksonville when he lost two fumbles.
Yet when he takes off downfield, as he did on a 51-yard dash in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars, he looks like George himself. Not only does he have speed, he has the power to run through tacklers.
Obviously he is a work in progress. Asked to compare himself to St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, McNair says, "I don't know if you can really compare the two styles. They are so different. Kurt's a drop-back passer, I'm more of a scrambler. We have both enjoyed some success, but it has been in completely different ways."
So completely different, in fact, that Warner threw for 41 touchdown passes this year and McNair 12.
The question for Super Sunday is which McNair the Rams will see, the close-to-the-vest McNair or the one that slowly is blossoming into an NFL passer?
"I'm not going to force a pass if nothing is open," says McNair. "I'm not going to force a run, either, if there is no place to run. All I want to do is put us in position to win."