Steve McNair is a Hall of Famer in my books. As the anniversary of McNair’s death rolls around, the debate over his Hall of Fame candidacy will continue. Is McNair a Hall of Fame quarterback? It’s a close call. In his thirteen seasons in the NFL, McNair was the ultimate warrior oftentimes playing through pain and injury.
McNair retired in 2008 due to injuries and was was killed July 4, 2009 by his girlfriend who then killed herself. McNair might not ever make it to the Hall of Fame; in fact his candidacy seems rather uncertain. I will examine his playing career and make a case that McNair is not only worthy but deserves to be named to the Hall.
McNair earned the nickname “Air McNair” in college at Alcorn State where he set passing records culminating with him becoming an All American. He also won the prestigious Walter Payton Award given annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision(formerly Division I-AA) of college football as chosen by a nationwide panel of media and college sports information directors. He finished third in the 1994 Heisman vote behind Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter.
McNair’s college stats were glorious and this is a very good look at his college career. McNair made the major news sources pay attention to smaller colleges and in particular historically black (HBCU) ones by virtue of his staggering numbers:
“During his senior season, he gained nearly 6,000 yards rushing and passing and 53 touchdowns. In his entire career he threw for 14, 496 and had total yards of over 16,000. “
McNair was selected with the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. At the time, it was the highest pick ever used on a black quarterback. He remains one of only three HBCU quarterbacks taken in the first round—alongside Eldridge Dickey and Doug Williams.
McNair played sparingly his first two years as a Houston Oiler as he was backing up Chris Chandler. He was charged with the unfortunate task of taking over a team in transition as owner K.S. “Bud” Adams decided to move the team in 1997 just as McNair was named the starter.
The Tennessee Oilers went 8-8 McNair’s first two years as the starter playing first in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl and then at Vanderbilt at its stadium. McNair would complete 505 of 907 pass attempts for 5893 yards, 29 touchdowns and 23 interceptions during this two year period. He would also carry the ball 178 times for 1233 yards and add 12 rushing touchdowns. His top receiving targets were Chris Sanders, Derrick Mason, and Frank Wycheck.
With the inauguration of the new stadium in Nashville, Tennessee the Titans added receiving target Kevin Dyson first round, 16th pick in the 1998 draft, passing over Randy Moss, and improbably made a run for the Super Bowl with an excellent defense headlined by former Florida standout Jevon Kearse. McNair famously led a fourth quarter comeback that almost culminated in a Titans win over the St. Louis Rams.
McNair’s early years were hampered by a conservative playing style led by Titans offensive coordinator Les Steckel. While Derrick Mason, Kevin Dyson and Chris Sanders were nice players none could be considered in the elite category. Despite all that, McNair is one of only three quarterbacks to throw for more than 30,000 yards and to rush for more than 3,500, joining Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton and both of them are enshrined in Canton.
He led the Titans to the Super Bowl during the 1999 season and engineered a comeback that almost led them to win Super Bowl XXXIV scoring 16 unanswered points. His ability to lead a comeback was a hallmark of his playing career as he posted 21 fourth quarter comeback wins in his professional playing career. In addition to leading the Titans to the Super Bowl once, he led them to the playoffs four times during his playing career.
He was the league’s co-MVP during the 2003 season sharing the honor with division rival Peyton Manning whose Indianapolis Colts beat McNair’s Titans led team to win the AFC South. He was selected to the Pro Bowl three times (2000, 2003 & 2005) and was an All Pro in 2003.
McNair played his last two seasons in Baltimore with the Ravens (2006, 20047) having been traded by the Titans in the 2006 offseason following a contract dispute. He led the Ravens to a playoff appearance his first year in Baltimore. Injuries ultimately derailed his career and he retired following the 2008 season.
He finished his playing career having played 161 games with 2733 completions out of 4544 attempts for 60.1% completion percentage, 31,304 passing yards, 174 passing touchdowns, 119 interceptions, and a passer rating of 82.8. He would add 669 carries for 3590 yards, 37 rushing touchdowns, and 5.4 yards per carry average.
A player must wait 5 years after retirement to be Hall of Fame eligible, and McNair made his entry onto the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013 and didn’t make it past the first round voting. That class also had big name first time nominees defensive tackle Warren Sapp and defensive end Michael Strahan. It’s rare for first time candidates to be inducted and even rarer for more than one to be selected although it does happen. Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Dave Robinson and Warren Sapp were selected in that class with Bill Parcells getting in by way of the seniors candidate vote.
The post modern era in the NFL is generally regarded as the Super Bowl era or post-merger era so comparing the quarterbacks post 1970 seems most appropriate. However, it should be noted the Pro Football Hall of Fame has 23 quarterbacks defined as modern era enshrinees and that list includes Bobby Layne 1948 to 1962, Y.A. Tittle 1948-1964, Norm Van Brocklin 1949-1960, and Bob Waterfield 1945-1952.
For our purposes, we will compare only post 1970 hall of fame quarterbacks in our analysis. I also threw out George Blanda who played 2 positions and wasn’t a full time starter in the modern era as it’s commonly recognized. That leaves 17 modern era quarterbacks currently in the HOF for comparison.
Dan Marino and Joe Namath’s rushing yards are so negligible I didn’t bother including them. Looking at the numbers is fascinating. Len Dawson, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Bart Starr and Joe Namath have fewer passing and rushing numbers than McNair but all except Namath had multiple Super Bowl or championship appearances.
Len Dawson’s Kansas City Chiefs went to the Super Bowl twice first in 1966 losing to Bart Starr’s Green Bay Packers and then winning the 1969 championship against the Minnesota Vikings. Dawson would be named the MVP. Starr would make 2 appearances himself winning both and being named MVP of both.
Staubach would appear in four Super Bowls winning two and being named MPV of one. He would lose his last one, Super Bowl XIII to Terry Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers who would be named MVP. Bradshaw himself would play in four Super Bowls winning all four and being named MVP twice.
Griese would make it to three Super Bowls losing first to MVP Staubach’s Cowboys and then the Washington Redskins before finally winning Super Bowl VIII to the Minnesota Vikings. He would never be named MVP.
Broadway Joe would make his fame off one Super Bowl appearance where he famously guaranteed a victory as the AFL merged with the NFL. Despite not throwing a touchdown, and rather ordinary numbers he would be named MVP of Super Bowl III. Namath appears to have made the Hall by virtue of being the face that legitimized the merger between the upstart AFL and the NFL.
Troy Aikman 1989-2000
Terry Bradshaw 1970-1983
Len Dawson 1957-1975
John Elway 1983-1998
Bob Griese 1967-1980
Sonny Jurgensen 1957-1974
Jim Kelly 1986-1996
Dan Marino 1983-1999
Joe Montana 1979-1994
Warren Moon 1984-2000
Joe Namath 1965-1977
Bart Starr 1956-1971
Roger Staubach 1969-1979
Fran Tarkenton 1961-1978
Johnny Unitas 1956-1973
Steve Young 1985-1999
McNair had the unfortunate timing of being drafted to a team on the verge of moving and oftentimes hampered with conservative play calling. Eddie George was drafted in 1996 and was a good even great running back in his prime. His production declined significantly following the 2000 season and the Titans never really replaced him during McNair’s remaining years starting.
Sanders best years were never elite and they were behind him when McNair took over the starting job. Derrick Mason will always remain one of my favorite Titans and even he struggled to get reps under Les Steckel. Drafted in 1997, It was only in 2000 that he really began to be incorporated into the offense. Tight end Frank Wycheck was an excellent player drafted by the Oilers in 1993 and besides Mason he was McNair’s main and best target throughout the larger part of his career.
McNair also had the unfortunate timing to be drafted into a league that was rapidly growing and expanding. From 1970 to the present, the NFL has added 15 new teams including the merger teams. With the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002, the NFL went through a realignment that placed the newly renamed Tennessee Titans in the newly formed AFC South division with the Indianapolis Colts (formerly known as the Baltimore Colts) and the two newer franchises in the Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With expansion and realignment, traditional rivalries became far less important and teams would be playing new unfamiliar foes. Now teams would have 31 other teams competing with them for the ultimate goal of making that big game. The odds of getting to the Super Bowl became much more remote.
The modern era also marked changes within the infrastructure of the league as Gene Upshaw took over the players union and the players went on strike in 1987. After victories in federal court, there began a limited period of free agency culminating in a makeshift Collective Bargaining Agreement that lasts until 2010. You can find a good history of this period here.
McNair both benefited and suffered from the free agency spending that occurred during the makeshift CBA period. The Titans led by then General Manager Floyd Reese negotiated extensions and new contracts for their core players and let Jevon Kearse walk in free agency following the 2003 season. The 2004 season was plagued by injuries and upcoming salary cap woes. Following the 2004 season, the Titans would cut Derrick Mason, Samari Rolle, and Kevin Carter among others. McNair himself would be traded in large part due to the unmanageable contract given to him by Reese.
Given his injuries and all that transpired during his tenure starting for the Titans, it is remarkable to consider what McNair accomplished. He broke grounds as a former HBCU alumni and was responsible for a large part of the success that black quarterback experience today. McNair also paved the way for throw first dual threat quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton to become a viable option as a franchise quarterback.
Despite the lack of a Super Bowl win, his numbers are comparable to the quarterbacks discussed above and he put up those numbers in circumstances that would defeat a lesser player and man. Will McNair ever make the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Maybe not.
Regardless, for many fans of the game of football, he will always be a hall of famer in our books.