McNair or bust

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McNair or bust
IconThe Baltimore Ravens learned an ugly lesson in last year’s playoff loss to the Colts. 

They are going nowhere if Steve McNair cannot play well. 

Though he is surrounded by talent, McNair alone remains the most important piece to the Ravens’ success.  He single-handedly killed their chances last year, and he has just as much responsibility this year.  Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen.

The playoff loss to the Colts highlighted his inability to lead a team at will like he used to do in Tennessee.  McNair always showed up in big games when he was with the Titans, but he was a complete no-show against Indianapolis.  Even a half-decent performance may have been enough to get by, but he couldn’t even do that.  Trent Dilfer never looked so good.

The Ravens have been snakebitten over the years at the quarterback position as all of their quick fixes never seem to work out.  After going 13-3 in the regular season, McNair looked like he would be an exception, but one playoff game later, no one is so sure.

What made him so good in Tennessee was his ability to make plays with his legs and buy time in the pocket.  Age and injuries have greatly decreased those skills, and he was essentially a run-of-the-mill pocket passer last season. 

Baltimore would have killed for a run-of-the-mill pocket passer before last year, which is why McNair’s solid regular season was such a breath of fresh air.  He was by no means an outstanding quarterback, but he knew what it took to win and could often get the job done.

The team has hope that full offseason and training camp for McNair will make a big difference in 2007.  He missed some offseason activities last year as he didn’t arrive by trade until June.  His familiarity with the offense, as well as the change in playcalling duties to head coach Brian Billick, led to a strong close to his first season with the Ravens.  One more good game would have been nice.

Thankfully, his margin for error is much bigger than it was last season thanks to an important offseason offensive addition and a defense that should remain one of the league’s best.

RB Willis McGahee was acquired in a trade with Buffalo and will make a big difference in the backfield.  Former starter Jamal Lewis and his three-yards per carry are out.  McGahee provides an element of excitement to the running game, and his athleticism and catching ability will be well utilized.

Losses along the offensive line are not as serious as they may seem.  The team drafted G Ben Grubbs in the offseason, and he will replace departed Edwin Mulitalo.  T Tony Pashos left via free agency, and his understudy Adam Terry will replace him.  The most important piece of the offense, LT Jonathan Ogden, chose to return for a 12th season instead of retiring.  The Ravens would have been a mess without him.

Defensively, the league’s top ranked unit returns virtually intact.  The offseason loss of Adalius Thomas will leave a big hole to fill, but replacement Jarrett Johnson will be given every opportunity to become the next great Ravens linebacker.  And he probably will.

Regardless, a defense with players like Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Bart Scott, and Ray Lewis will keep right on ticking.  They way they create turnovers and score points of their own would be enough to win a handful of games if the offense never even took the field.

It is realistic to assume that the Ravens will finish worse than their record last year.  They had a lot of fortunate bounces that led to big plays last year, and they have struggled to piece together back-to-back stellar campaigns.

That said, they look on paper to be better than last year’s group.  McGahee’s addition and the return of 10 of 11 starters on defense give Baltimore a great head start on its AFC North title defense.

A playoff berth is in the bag. 

Anything more than that is up to McNair. 

Projection:  10-6, 2nd AFC North

Keep an eye on:  NT Kelly Gregg.  The whitest and most underrated member of the Ravens’ D.

Take your eyes off:    CB Samari Rolle.  Not the only former Titan on the roster who’s losing it.

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