By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff
WESTMINSTER -- Ray Lewis came out of the huddle and slowly got into an intimidating crouch. He glared across the line of scrimmage.
Nothing could deter Lewis' concentration as he locked in and began to read the eyes of quarterback Steve McNair, an adversary-turned-teammate.
McNair pointed in one direction then looked the other way. He couldn't help but see Lewis, determined to foil his plans in this innocuous training-camp 11-on-11 drill the same way he had done numerous times in 15 meetings between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans.
|Ray Lewis was named MVP of SuperBowl XXXV. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)|
McNair, the 2003 co-Most Valuable Player and three-time Pro Bowl selection, has emerged victorious seven times.
Each has won one postseason meeting against the other, celebrating on the other's home field.
Never had a matchup seemed so even.
At the snap, Lewis immediately yelled, "Ball! Ball!" and took several quick strides to his left, guiding himself and two of his teammates to an area near the right seam where he knew the pass was going to go.
McNair hurriedly threw in that direction, where the ball fell incomplete.
It's at that point where the difference between these two future Hall of Famers becomes obvious to this writer.
Lewis wears a Super Bowl ring. McNair could only come close to one.
Now, they're going to try to win one together.
Lewis couldn't be happier about one of the toughest quarterbacks he's ever faced lining up on his sideline for once.
"I've been playing against this guy for 11 years now," Lewis said. "To have him on the same side of the field as me, knowing what he brings, he helps the defense. He's one of the guys that the defense says, 'Oh, yeah, we love him.'
"He really knows how to manage a game. He understands it. He's been to Pro Bowls. He's been in the Super Bowl, now he's hungry to win one."
Before, McNair would have had to go through Lewis to win a championship. Now, all he has to do is direct the offense and enjoy Lewis' work instead of plotting against it.
"Me and Ray are very good friends now," McNair said. "In the past, we've been in a lot of wars. When you compete like Ray does and like I do, you're going to have battles on the field."
McNair's career began in 1995, one year before the Ravens were born. In the ensuing years, he has faced the same Super Bowl odyssey as any player.
But for him, the odyssey has become a quest.
McNair guided the Titans to the playoffs four times. On three of those occasions, they were eliminated in the divisional (second) round, including a 24-10 loss to the Ravens in January 2001, his team's first-ever loss at its Coliseum home field.
However, it's the one-yard-short loss at Super Bowl XXXIV at Atlanta's Georgia Dome that everyone remembers.
|Steve McNair guided the Titans to the playoffs four times. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)|
The fateful final play wasn't McNair's fault.
All he wanted to do was hit Kevin Dyson on a slant that would carry him into the end zone for a touchdown to send the Super Bowl to overtime for the first time. It would have added to one of his most underrated stats: his 19 game-tying or game-winning drives in the last two minutes of regulation or overtime.
That play may have denied McNair a championship, but nothing can take away from the fact that since he became a starter in 1997, no quarterback has rushed for more yards (3,232).
Plus, McNair is one of only five quarterbacks in NFL history to have passed for 20,000 yards and rushed for 3,000 yards. He's in good company there with ex-Raven Randall Cunningham, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young and John Elway.
"I'm a fan, just like most of you are," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "You can gain an appreciation for Steve McNair and his ability in critical times to make good plays and big-time plays."
In the same city, nearly two hours after McNair's Super Bowl effort fell one yard short, a big-time event turned into a bad-time headline.
On the same night the Titans fell to the Rams, Lewis fell from grace as he was arrested and eventually charged with a double murder that took place outside an Atlanta nightclub.
After a trial that saw him convicted of obstructing justice, Lewis took his brush with the law and turned it into a brush with greatness.
He helped lead the best single-season defense in NFL history to benchmarks the more-celebrated 1985 Bears couldn't match: fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165), fewest rushing yards allowed (970, the only team to allow less than 1,000) and lowest yards allowed per rush (2.68 per carry).
Despite an offense that didn't score a touchdown for five straight weeks, the defense spurred an 11-game winning streak that culminated in a 34-7 Super Bowl XXXV pounding of the New York Giants.
The Giants' spirit was broken nearly one year to the day after McNair's heart was.
And while Lewis has achieved closure since his troubles, he wants to help McNair reach the same place despite his (McNair's) nearly three dozen injuries and numerous surgeries.
"What he brings to the field is being a pure leader," Lewis said. "He's a warrior. You're talking about a guy who walks out there with whatever pad on, whatever bruise on, whatever's broken. He's going to give you whatever he's got."
And that's what the other players appreciate the most, when you can see another player go to war. That's why we're so appreciative to have him."
That's why this year, when Lewis crouches and glares at someone during a regular-season game, McNair will be feeling something quite different.
He'll be enjoying -- not dreading -- the inevitable destruction.
Issue 1.15: August 3, 2006