Steve McNair and I were born two days apart. We were in college at the same time. His career, family -- even retirement -- was something I tracked, if only because it was so easy to relate.
Like everyone else, I admired McNair for his toughness and his leadership in the NFL. It is hard not to imagine what his career had been like had he not played for just-win Jeff Fisher. (I don't want to also nick him for playing in a small market like Nashville, because great NFL careers usually transcend their market size.)
Maybe McNair would not have had the team success he had -- an NFL career really crystallized by that one-yard-short play in the Super Bowl -- without Fisher. But what if he played for a more wide-open offense? McNair was arguably the most physically gifted QB in NFL history.
I define that in a couple different ways: He had as good of an arm as anyone ever. He could run, when necessary -- again, he could have redefined the position if he had a coach with more imagination. And he was the toughest QB to ever play the position -- yes, including Favre. Especially Favre. McNair was the anti-Favre: He didn't need to advertise his toughness.
(Vince Young is a comparably skilled player, at least as it relates to physical talents -- McNair worked with Fisher a lot better than VY has, obviously. Here's the thing: McNair was a father-figure to Young; I cannot imagine how hard Young is taking this -- where Young goes from this moment will be the defining pivot of HIS career.)
But let's go back to Alcorn State, because when I was in college, I was as blown away by McNair as everyone else. That he was able to leap from 1-AA to the top of the NFL Draft says as much about his talent as anything. His senior season was ridiculous: 6,000 yards rushing and passing, with 53 TDs.
The greatest insult was that McNair finished third in Heisman voting, behind Rashan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter -- no, really -- when he was clearly the most talented player in college football that year. We should hold this against sportswriters who vote for the Heisman for the rest of their careers. Those voters should still feel shamed by that vote.
(I suppose that it is as much of a testament to his skill as anything that in the pre-Internet era, he was able to earn 3rd with a bunch of sportswriters who undoubtedly held his 1-AA status against him -- as much as they were blinded by Salaam's 2,000-yard season or Carter's status as a Penn State player.)
I will now cop to my own astounding mistake: For an upcoming book, I recently worked on a long analysis of Tim Tebow's place among all-time college QBs. I have no problem placing him near the top of the list now -- and at the very top, depending on what happens next season.
But I left Steve McNair out of my all-time Top 5, which was a huge mistake. I feel as bad about that as those Heisman voters should feel about their vote in '94. McNair was as good of a QB as ever played college football -- I wish we had gotten to see him play against top 1-A comp. Regardless, when the book comes out in a few weeks -- I only wrote the one essay, btw -- and I promote it, I will have to add an asterisk to everything, caveating my snub of McNair.
(I actually think that McNair isn't a bad comp for Tebow. Obviously, McNair had a much better -- and more accurate -- arm, but their size and toughness and leadership and results on the field and in the stats column are comparable, at least at the college level.)
We did get to see McNair play against the best in the world, in the NFL. And he was a winner there, too -- again, despite a system that converted his brilliance into convention, but translated into wins, which is all anyone should care about when it comes to McNair's record in the NFL. That, and the fact that he played through pain and injury as well as anyone ever.
As he was retired, his loss won't be felt as acutely as if he was still playing. But as he was recently retired, with a slew of thirtysomething and fortysomething fans controlling sports media and blogs, we all remember his college and pro career so vividly, it is stunning that he is gone.