Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair is one of seven Mississippians slated for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame next July, the organization announced Monday.
The 2014 class includes two other NFL players, Doug Cunningham and Deuce McAllister, broadcaster Robin Roberts, sprinter Calvin Smith and Richard Williams, the only coach ever to take a Mississippi team to the NCAA Division I Final Four.
“I think it’s important to note that all seven are from small-town Mississippi,” Rick Cleveland, the MSHOF’s executive director said. “They should serve as inspiration to youngsters — boys and girls no matter their background — across the Magnolia State.”
McNair, of course, was from Mt. Olive, Mississippi, which as of last year had a population of 979.
He was the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft, started 153 games in the NFL (131 for the Titans/Oilers), was the league’s 2003 co-most valuable player and led the Titans to their only Super Bowl. He also was a record-setting college quarterback at Alcorn State in Mississippi.
The formal induction will take place July 25, 2014 at Jackson, Miss.
Whether or not you believe Jake Locker is the quarterback who can lead the Tennessee Titans back to prominence – and there are plenty of folks on either side of that issue – it is tough to say that the coaches’ commitment to him is a bad idea.
Based on what’s happening around the league at the moment, there’s nothing to suggest that waffling on who plays that position would be better.
Minnesota opened the season with Christian Ponder then tried Matt Cassel before it brought in Josh Freeman and threw him headfirst into the pool Monday night. Freeman completed 20 of 53 passes and ended up with a concussion that likely brings the Vikings back to Ponder.
Jacksonville has gone back and forth between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne and – for now – has decided to stick with Henne over Gabbert, taken two spots after Locker in the 2011 draft.
Cleveland has given up on Brandon Weeden twice this season. The first time it looked as if it would work out when Brian Hoyer, who ultimately sustained a season-ending knee injury, led the Browns to three victories in three starts. Now they have opted for Jason Campbell ahead of their 2012 first-round pick.
In case anyone is wondering, Minnesota, Jacksonville and Cleveland are a combined 4-16 at the moment and none of their young quarterbacks have shown the level of improvement Locker has.
Simply put: There are not 32 quarterbacks worthy of being starters in the NFL.
Certainly there never are going to be 32 prepared to play right away in the manner of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Thus, teams that don’t get someone like that have two choices. Either commit to one and try build him into a quality starter or bounce back and forth between two or more and hope you get lucky.
No one thinks Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in NFL history but he has started every game since he entered the league in 2008 and last year led his team to a Super Bowl victory. The Ravens, unwilling to gamble on the unknown, rewarded him with a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
The Titans waited two years before they named Steve McNair their starter then endured two 8-8 seasons that were inconsistent enough to test their resolve. The investment paid off when McNair led them to the Super Bowl in 1999 and was named the league’s co-MVP in 2003.
When it came time to replace McNair, the franchise drafted Vince Young third overall in 2006. For the next five seasons coaches went back and forth between Young and veteran Kerry Collins – and the Titans did not win a playoff game.
So it was back to the drawing board and Locker with the eighth overall pick. Coaches named him the starter as soon as they felt they could – the beginning of last season – and twice have brought him back from injury as soon as they possibly could, most recently last week against San Francisco.
“I thought overall [he was] very competitive,” coach Mike Munchak said Monday. “I never thought once to take him out of that game. I never once thought it was a bad idea. He’s special that way, and I think that’s why we keep saying when the smoke clears the guy is going to be a winner. We’ve got some work ahead of us this year, but it was a good start for him.”
Locker’s original contract extends through next season. By then, the Titans ought to know whether they ought to give him another one because they are determined to give him every chance to show he is – or is not – worth it.
Steve McNair or Robert Griffin III?
Which one evokes the more powerful image?
There is nobility in the decision to play injured as McNair proved so many times during his years with the Tennessee Titans. No matter how bruised or battered, the surprise was when he did not find a way to get on the field Sunday.
For Titans fans and even some members of the current coaching staff, the memories of McNair’s courage are powerful and poignant. The standard he set for himself caused all of his teammates to look at themselves and their own pain differently. The level at which he played, even when greatly diminished, eliminated any and all excuses anyone else might seek.
Jake Locker suddenly has the opportunity to stir this franchise in a similar manner.
Less than three weeks since he sprained his right hip and knee in a freak incident against the New York Jets he has been cleared for contact and has participated in practice – albeit on a limited basis – each of the last two days. No one has said he will play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (3:05 p.m., Fox). Then again, no one has said he won’t either.
As much as the Titans would love to resurrect the McNair effect in their new franchise quarterback, they also are well aware of what happened to Griffin, Washington’s top choice a year ago and the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. He desire to play through a knee injury late in the year led to a second, more severe issue with the joint. The impact of that decision continues to adversely affect that team 10 months later.
Simply put: Not everybody can do what McNair could. Perhaps nobody can.
Or maybe Locker, who has drawn comparisons to McNair in other regards, has the same sort of fortitude, fearlessness and physiology that allows him to play with and through pain most can’t.
If nothing else, the Titans ought to be able to recognize the signs.
“He’s a guy that has unfortunately been hurt, but he heals usually ahead of schedule,” coach Mike Munchak said. “He definitely loves the game, definitely wants to be part of it, doesn’t want to miss it. These last two weeks have really been hard for him, so I think he’s going to do everything he can to put himself in a situation where he’s ready to play.
“… It’s just a matter of can he do that? Is he quite ready yet with his body? There’s no doubt the more you rest, the more you take off, the stronger your leg’s going to feel.”
Washington’s experience with Griffin is more than enough to make the Titans think twice (or three or four times) before they put Locker out there, especially given that their open date follows this game.
Then again, how can anyone associated with that team not think of McNair and exactly what it meant to have him out there time and time again?
One of Locker’s greatest attributes in his brief career has been his ability to make the right decision on the field. The choice of whether or not to be on the field Sunday might be his most difficult yet.
As a starter … well, Ryan Fitzpatrick is not off to a great start.
The veteran backup fell to 0-2 with the Tennessee Titans with Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, a game in which he averaged 10 yards per completion but threw two interceptions without a touchdown pass.
His job has been made more difficult by the fact that his starts have been against Kansas City and Seattle, both of which currently rank among the NFL’s top six in yards per game allowed and the top three in points per game allowed.
“[The Seahawks] are a good defense but I think if you look at the game, we couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense and a lot of that is me,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t play well [Sunday], really for the last two weeks. [I’ve] played poorly and we haven’t won a game, it’s hard for me to come in and I feel like the momentum has kind of gone into a halt the last two games and the way that we played on offense. … I’m not doing enough out there to consistently move the ball for the offense.”
As bad as his record is, it’s not that different from many others who have had the position over the years.
Of the eight quarterbacks who have started for the franchise during the Titans era, only the first two – Steve McNair and Neil O’Donnell – won their first two starts. In McNair’s case, those victories were for the Houston Oilers late in his rookie season of 1995.
Fitzpatrick is the fourth of the last five who has begun with back-to-back defeats. The man he has subbed for the last two weeks, Jake Locker, did it as well but then won his third start.
TITANS QUARTERBACKS, FIRST TWO STARTS
Ryan Fitzpatrick (2013)
Stats: 38-70 (54.3 percent), 418 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT
Jake Locker (2012)
Stats: 38-62 (61.3 percent), 403 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Matt Hasselbeck (2011)
Stats: 51-76 (67.1 percent), 621 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
Vince Young (2006)
Stats: 24-50 (48 percent), 224 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Kerry Collins (2006)
Stats: 23-57 (40.4 percent), 280 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT
Billy Volek (2003, 2004)
Stats: 65-99 (65.7 percent), 574 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
Neil O’Donnell (1999)
Stats: 48-72 (66.7 percent), 514 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Steve McNair (1995)
Stats: 25-53 (47.2 percent), 366 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
For Steve McNair, it was a turning point.
His 12th career start came in Week 7 of 1997, his third NFL season. He and the then-Tennessee Oilers had lost four in row, and he had thrown multiple interceptions in consecutive contests for the first time in his career. The previous week he was a miserable 12-for-28 for 101 yards at Seattle.
Beginning with the following week’s 30-7 victory over Cincinnati and continuing through the end of 2003, the third overall pick in the 1995 draft went 64-33 as a starter. That stretch included back-to-back 13-3 seasons, the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history and a co-MVP award.
Although it guarantees nothing, that bit of franchise history is notable because Jake Locker, now in his third NFL season, will make his 12th career start for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Pittsburgh (noon, CBS).
To this point, the 10th overall pick 2011 has been underwhelming in the role. His completion percentage is pedestrian. He has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Most notably, his won-loss record is terrible courtesy of four defeats in his last six outings.
If nothing else, McNair’s history gives the Titans reason to believe that a quarterback does not need a full season as a starter to learn all he needs to be effective in the NFL. Perhaps three training camps and 11 starts are all it takes.
“I think he’s just more comfortable with what we’re doing,” coach Mike Munchak said Wednesday. “He’s much more at ease in his relationship with the players, the receivers, the backs out of the backfield, the screen game. There’s a lot of things he’s just a lot better at. … We’re excited about where he’s at. We’re going to find out where we’re all at. Most teams in the league are in the same boat. You just don’t know quite what you have until you get it started.”
Vince Young did not have to wait nearly as long for his opportunity. The third overall pick of 2006 was a starter by the fourth game of his rookie season and logged 11 starts by mid-December.
He carried a five-game win streak into his 12th, in Buffalo on Christmas Eve, where he completed 13 of 20 passes for 183 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 127.7 passer rating remained his best for a full game until a rout of Oakland in the 2010 opener.
Young maintained that early momentum all the way through 2007, when he led the Titans to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. His completion percentage in his first – and only – full season as a starter was a tidy 62.3, still his career-high.
A look at how McNair, Young and Locker performed in their first 11 NFL starts:
Locker: 177-314 (56.4 percent) 2,718 yards, 10 TD 11 INT
Young: 156-301 (51.8 percent) 1,789 yards, 10 TD 11 INT
McNair: 160-292 (54.8 percent) 2,136 yards, 12 TD 9 INT
Locker: 41-291 (7.1 yards per carry) 1 TD
Young: 73-462 (6.3 yards per carry) 5 TD
McNair: 55-311 (5.6 yards per carry) 0 TD
RECORD AS A STARTER
Like McNair and Young, Locker did not enter the NFL as a finished product. He arrived strong-armed, undeniably athletic, equipped to make something out of nothing, which made him — in the eyes of team executives — worthy of selection early in the draft.
He also had technical flaws, however, some of which might never be remedied. McNair learned to maximize his strengths. Young’s weaknesses eventually overwhelmed his gifts.
Based on what current Titans coaches saw through his first 11 starts, they retooled the playbook in offseason to focus on the things Locker does well.
“Obviously, he is a talented young player,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “I’m really impressed by his mobility, his accuracy on the move that he has displayed in the preseason. We have some concerns about containing him. … His escapability is a part of what they do both by design and by ad lib. That is something you have to be concerned about if you are on defense.”
As was the case with his first-round predecessors, coaches committed to Locker as soon as they felt prudent. None simply walked into a starting job. In this latest case, it was after one season as Matt Hasselbeck’s understudy. Locker would have gotten to his 12th start last season had a shoulder injury sustained in the opener not sidelined him for more than a month.
So it is now. Has he experienced enough that his experience will start to pay off?
“I’m just trying to learn [with] every opportunity I get,” Locker said. “You always wish you had more snaps, but I’m just trying to learn from every one I get the opportunity to take.”
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