I spent the weekend thinking quite a bit about Steve McNair, given the horrible events that took place in Nashville, Tenn., and talking to people who knew him well. Obviously, the NFL is still reeling from McNair's untimely death, and hearts and prayers are with his friends and family as they try to somehow cope with his passing.
As I reflected on McNair's career, I began to ponder whether he will end up enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, given that many of his greatest contributions to the game came in moments of brilliance, determination and leadership that don't fit neatly into a statistical package. To me, McNair was one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and one of the game's most respected performers for the bulk of his 13-year NFL career.
McNair was an elite talent who wasn't into putting up numbers. He was all about finding a way to beat you, whether that meant taking on two linebackers with his head down to grind out a first down or buying time to improvise an impossible pass downfield to stretch a defense. I believe McNair warrants consideration for the Hall of Fame, most certainly, when assessing his worth to his teammates and what was at the time a transient franchise, and when one looks beyond the numbers. He helped inspire another generation of African-American quarterbacks, he was a mentor to many, and he showed, once more, that great quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes, with McNair's sturdy frame a challenge for defenders to corral.
When you look at McNair's era of quarterbacks -- I'm talking about guys who rose to prominence while the days of Joe Montana, John Elway, Steve Young and Jim Kelly wound down -- I consider him to be one of eight standouts. I'm only including quarterbacks who have played more than five seasons to this point (guys such as Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers don't yet qualify). So, to me, of this "McNair Era," I would list Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, McNair, Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer as the true elites at their position. I'd rank them in that order, which puts McNair in the top five.
McNair got it done with his arms and his legs, and he helped bring stability and an identity to the Houston Oilers franchise as it relocated to Tennessee and became the Titans. He was a primary reason why Jeff Fisher has been allowed to remain the team's head coach for so long. McNair also played a central role in some of the more memorable games in recent NFL history, including one of the best Super Bowls, and the "Music City Miracle" playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills. McNair won a league MVP award, took two teams to division titles and was outstanding in the community. He also played with a toughness and tenacity that gave him a mythology and a larger-than-life gameday persona that adds luster to one's Hall of Fame resume.
As for stats, most importantly, the guy was a winner. He won nearly 60 percent of his starts (.595 winning percentage). McNair and Hall of Famers Young and Fran Tarkenton are the only three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 30,000 or more yards and rush for 3,000 or more yards. McNair twice had seasons of eight rushing touchdowns (1997, 1999), and he averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his career.
During his nine prime years (McNair played 13 seasons, but in essence, his "rookie" season was his third year, when he began starting regularly, and his final season was marred by injuries), McNair threw 149 touchdown passes to 97 interceptions and scored another 27 TDs on the ground. He completed 61 percent of his passes in that stretch for 25,760 yards and a solid, if unspectacular, 84.4 passer rating. Again, those aren't gaudy stats, but they provide plenty of reasons to explain why McNair won so much in a league defined by parity.
McNair's best statistical twin might be Mark Brunell, as they played in the same era for rebuilding/expansion clubs and were dual threats in terms of passing and running. Their career stats are almost identical (Brunell has played three more seasons, but he has seen little action since 2006):
McNair: 60.1 completion percentage, 31,304 passing yards, 174 touchdown passes, 119 interceptions, 82.8 passer rating, 5.4 yards per carry, 37 rushing TDs.
Brunell: 59.6 completion percentage, 31,826 passing yards, 182 touchdown passes, 106 interceptions, 84.2 passer rating, 4.8 yards per carry, 15 rushing TDs.
And as much as I like and respect Brunell, he isn't someone who likely will generate tremendous Hall of Fame debate. I understand that, and I'm not saying that McNair is a sure thing (frankly, my gut is that he won't get in). But had the Titans picked up another yard in their Super Bowl XXXIV appearance, possibly giving McNair a championship ring, it might have put his candidacy over the top. Regardless, the one constant to McNair's career was that he found ways to make teams better, and his contributions to the game merit discussion for the Hall of Fame, if perhaps not his ultimate enshrinement there.