The life and times and untimely death of Steve McNair is much more than a sports story.
It has elements of a Shakespearean tragedy because, despite his exploits on the field, there was so much promise unfulfilled.
This is the 20th anniversary season of his lone Super Bowl appearance, when McNair brought the Tennessee Titans back from a 16-0 deficit only to see Kevin Dyson fall a yard short of sending the game against the then-St. Louis Rams into overtime.
And this week is the 10th anniversary of his death on July 4, 2009, when his mistress shot him to death and then turned the gun on herself and committed suicide.
The way McNair died shocked even his former teammates, because it was such a contrast to the image he had as a family man with four sons who was noted for being generous in the community.
“None of it sounded like Steve,” Eddie George told The (Nashville) Tennessean after it was revealed that the place where he died was a crash pad where he entertained women.
Shock and disbelief were the words that another former teammate, Derrick Mason, used.
But McNair is still remembered in Tennessee more for what he did on the field than the way he died, and the Titans will retire his No. 9 and George’s No. 27 at a ceremony at the team’s first home game this year.
It is a fitting tribute to a quarterback who is one of only three in league history to throw for more than 30,000 yards and run for more than 3,500 yards. Hall of Famers Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton are the other two.
McNair was so strong and such a good runner in an era where quarterbacks aren’t protected the way they are now, and he suffered a lot of injuries that probably cut years off his career.
And there is still a sense of what might have been for McNair. He was such a good athlete in Mississippi that he was drafted on the 35th round of the major league amateur baseball draft in 1991 and was recruited by many top colleges to play football.
The problem is that most of them wanted him to play another position. Whether he was a victim of the fact that colleges weren’t eager to have black quarterbacks back then or whether they thought he had more potential as, say, a running back will never be known.
So he wound up at Alcorn State because they were willing to play him at quarterback, and he had such a spectacular career that the then-Houston Oilers made him the third pick in the 1995 draft.
The problem with that is that the coach was Jeff Fisher, who was not exactly a quarterback whisperer, and the league wasn’t as passing-oriented as it is today.
Fisher was a defensive coach who wanted to stress running George and playing defense. Whether McNair would have had more success under a more passing friendly coach is one of the unknowns of his career. The approach probably shortened George’s career because he ran him 330 or more times in five different seasons.
The approach was good enough to get the Titans within a yard of sending the Super Bowl against the Rams into overtime and a 13-3 record and top seed in the AFC the following year in 2000.
But the approach was costly in their home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
In the third period, Fisher had George run on third-and-3 from the Ravens 3, and he was stopped short and they settled for a field goal. He should have put the ball in McNair’s hands on a run-pass option.
In the fourth quarter at fourth-and-1 at the Ravens 19, Fisher went for the field goal to try to break a 10-10 tie, even though Al Del Greco already had one blocked and had missed a 31-yarder. The Ravens came up with their second block and returned it for a touchdown to take control of the game.
Now trailing, the Titans went to the air, but they hadn’t been built to be a passing team and McNair threw a pick that Ray Lewis returned for a touchdown.
The Titans wound up losing the game even though they led 23-6 in first downs and 317-134 edge in yardage while limiting Trent Dilfer to five completions.
That game was a microcosm of McNair’s career. They made the playoffs twice in the next three years but lost to the Oakland Raiders in 2001 and the New England Patriots in 2003, then their window closed.
Still, the five-year run from 1999 to 2003 was the best in the team’s short history in Tennessee.
Besides having his number retired by the Titans, McNair deserves one more honor – the college Hall of Fame. He had a HOF career at Alcorn State, passing for 14,494 yards, a career record until Stanford quarterback Devlin Hodges topped it last year. He still holds the record for offensive yardage at 16,823.
McNair was rejected by the selectors for the Hall last year, and nobody knows if the way he died figured into the decision.
But he could still be enshrined. Like the Titans, the Hall needs to recognize him for how he played, not how he died.