Editor’s Note: Jim Reineking is an editor for NFL.com. Here’s his take on the late, great Steve McNair.
“A Football Life: Steve McNair” debuts on NFL Network tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
Six seconds remained in one of the most exciting Super Bowls yet to be played.
With his Tennessee Titans facing a 10-yard chasm to the game-tying touchdown, Steve McNair lined up in the shotgun formation, threw a short slant to Kevin Dyson, who appeared to have an open field to the end zone. However, that clear path to a touchdown closed quickly as St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled Dyson and the receiver’s outstretched arm came dramatically and agonizingly short of the end zone as time expired. McNair and the seemingly up-and-coming Titans would never again return to pro football’s ultimate game.
Leading a moribund franchise — one that just two seasons prior moved to Tennessee after more than a three-and-a-half-decade run as the Houston Oilers — to a championship was to be McNair’s legacy. Instead, McNair’s emergence represents a watershed moment for African-American quarterbacks. McNair was the second African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl. Doug Williams famously put forth an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII. Sixty eight years before him, Pro Football Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard was the field general for an undefeated Akron Pros team that became the inaugural NFL champions in 1920. Three African-American pro football pioneers linked by a run at a championship. Thankfully after McNair’s shot at glory, a stereotype was forever altered and an African-American taking the controls of an NFL huddle no longer seemed like a novelty.
In the fall of 1994, McNair posted video-game numbers in a season for the ages at Alcorn State, which also featured a Sports Illustrated cover demanding that the small-school quarterback win the Heisman Trophy. The Heisman Trophy winner from the year before — Florida State’s Charlie Ward — opted to play in the NBA rather than pursue an NFL career over supposed pro football deficiencies. Still, in the 1995 NFL Draft, the Oilers — under the guidance of coach Jeff Fisher — selected McNair with the No. 3 overall pick.
McNair became a vanguard for the big, athletic, African-American quarterbacks soon to hit the NFL. After McNair emerged as an NFL star, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Cam Newton followed. These players were all drafted at or near the top of the first round and represented not only a threat in the passing game, but also to tuck the ball, scramble for yards and be very difficult to bring to the ground.
No effort in McNair’s career was a better microcosm of the varied abilities that he brought to the field than the play before Jones’ tackle of Dyson at the 1-yard line halted the Titans’ triumphant surge to glory in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Titans’ epic drive to tie up the game in the waning moments was highlighted by a third-and-5 situation from the Rams’ 27-yard line with just 22 seconds left in the game. McNair collected a shotgun snap, went on a wild scramble that included somehow eluding the grasp of two Rams defensive linemen — Jay Williams and Kevin Carter — and then fired a first-down pass to Dyson to provide the Titans one last opportunity to even the score.
It is arguably the single greatest individual effort by a player on a losing team in Super Bowl history.