McNair blazed trail for athletic QBs

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 9, 2009

Saturday’s death of Alcorn State legend Steve McNair at the young age of 36 marked the end of a football trailblazer.

He set the stage for every dual-threat quarterback with his groundbreaking style of play that changed the game. He was the “wildcat” in the wildcat formation before it ever became a football buzzword. With every Pro Bowl, McNair proved that just because you’re athletic, it doesn’t mean you would be unable to play the game’s toughest position.

Originally, the Mount Olive native was recruited by all of the big football schools, but to play elsewhere, like in the defensive backfield. But instead of taking the conventional wisdom and changing positions, McNair believed that he was ultimately a quarterback and that he wanted to go somewhere to play under center.

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Enter Alcorn State.

The Lorman university was the only one to offer him a scholarship as a quarterback. He jumped at the opportunity, waiting only partway through his first game before coming off the bench to throw three touchdown passes in a 27-22 victory over Grambling.

He never sat on the bench again.

McNair racked up 5,799 total yards in 11 games in 1994, still a Division I-AA record. He was one of the few players from a non-Division I-A school to place in the race for the Heisman Trophy, as he finished third in balloting behind Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam and Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter.

He ended his career at Alcorn with 16,823 total yards, another record he still holds and put the “Air” in  his nickname with 119 touchdown passes.

But going into the 1995 NFL Draft, McNair heard all of the criticism. He hadn’t played against top-flight competition. He would have to move under center in the NFL after playing in a shotgun-heavy offense (it wasn’t called a spread offense back then) and would have to absorb the complexities of an NFL offense. But the Houston Oilers made him the third pick in the draft and he wouldn’t wait long to blossom, as he became the full-time starter in 1997  for the newly renamed Tennessee Titans, which moved to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis and then Nashville.

From that point onward, McNair was a perennial Pro Bowler, led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV and shared 2003 AP MVP honors with Peyton Manning, a more conventional pocket passer. In his 12-year career, he completed 2,744 of 4,544 passes for 31,304 yards with 174 touchdowns and 119 interceptions.

To those who said a team couldn’t win with a mobile quarterback, one stat of McNair’s sticks out: his 91-62 record as a starting quarterback.

So Tim Tebow, Vince Young, Phillip Rivers, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and others still to follow, you owe McNair a debt of gratitude. You didn’t have to spend your career in pads catching passes while avoiding killshots from roving safeties, blocking some guy outweighing you by 30 pounds or trying to defend loud-mouthed wide receivers on an island all alone. You, too, can be a field general.

McNair once and for all proved that a mobile quarterback doesn’t mean an NFL one. And the game is a better one for it.