A Super Bowl
I'm sure the Titans aren't in the mood to hear it. But no Super Bowl also-ran in memory has come off looking as good as Tennessee did. Don't even bring up the 1990-'91 Buffalo Bills, who bungled their way to defeat, missing a field goal after their two-minute drill broke down. They were losers, battered into fatigue by the Giants, as surely as the hopeful Bengals were picked apart by the 1988-'89 49ers, which is to say, in the end, as surely as the Patriots were clobbered by the 1985-'86 Bears. Those Bills were another entry on the list of shame, a damp, flattened object on which the National Football League's latest superpower did its victory dance.
The Titans, though, went out bravely and with grace. The Rams seemed to know, quite as well as Tennessee did, how close the game had been: Eighteen more inches, or five more seconds, and the Titans would have had the ball in the end zone. As it was, it took a clean, perfect tackle by linebacker Mike Jones to save the championship for St. Louis. The Rams may be with the immortals now, but the Titans at least came out of the big game alive.
The TV people, so used to watching one team or the other get squashed in the Super Bowl, had trouble grasping the situation. In the third quarter, with the Titans trailing 16-0, ABC began showing Tennessee backup quarterback Neil O'Donnell on the sidelinethe message being that starter Steve McNair was in line to become the scapegoat for the Titans' defeat. McNair promptly took the Titans on their first touchdown drive, hitting three consecutive passes, then taking off and running for 23 yards, down to the Rams' 2, to set up the score.
McNair, the all-time NCAA passing leader, has not gotten much respect in his five-year pro career. Sportscasters have a way of talking about him as if he's mildly retarded, emphasizing how the Titans keep the offense simple and don't ask him to do too much. More than a decade after Washington's Doug Williams shredded the Broncos in the Super Bowl, a whiff of the old bias against black quarterbacks still hung in the air: The way to succeed with McNair, quarterback-turned-commentator Boomer Esiason announced early in the telecast, is to "let him use his instincts." Instincts! In this context, the I-word is about half a notch more polite than the N-word. What McNair does for the Titansthrowing conservative passes to complement the running game, and assiduously avoiding turnoversis deliberate and disciplined. When fair-haired Phil Simms used to do it for the Giants in the '80s, everybody marveled at what a smart quarterback he was.
Of course, Simms couldn't run the ball the way McNair can. Over and over, people say McNair runs "just like a running back." This is more racialist nonsense. Randall Cunningham used to run like a running back, tucking the ball and sprinting downfield in full stride. Ever since I first saw McNair at Alcorn State, I've been struck by how much he runs like John Elway, hitching and scissor-kicking as the pass rush comes, always leaving himself room to pull up and throw till he crosses the line of scrimmage. Like Elway, he gives the impression of being both the matador and the bull; defenders miss when they try to chase him down, and get fearful when he starts running toward them. The only difference between the two scramblers comes at the end, where McNair, still young, eschews a protective slide and tries to lay a hit on his tacklers.
That McNair lost the quarterbacking duel with league MVP/folk hero Kurt Warner took almost nothing away from his own accomplishments. Warner rolled up 414 yards against the inventive and relentless Tennessee defense, the last 73 yards of it coming on one incredible play, the winning touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce. These are the 1999-2000 Rams: Warner firing the ball, with Tennessee's Jevon Kearse about to hit him; Bruce slipping behind his defender to catch it, then threading his way through the secondary. An illegal block helped spring him, it's true. And the knee of Tennessee's Eddie George grazed the rug earlier in the quarter, as his body flexed to lift and carry a defensive lineman backward into the end zone for the Titans' second touchdown. Even the blown calls had a pleasing symmetry.
It was an unprecedented show. For once, the NFL season ended not on the usual note of triumphalism, but on one of optimism. The Titans are young and strong, and there's no reason to think they won't get better. And behind them are the Buccaneers of Warren Sapp and the Colts of Peyton Manning, two more rising teams that went down fighting in the playoffs. Neither seems likely to slink away and expire, the way losers used to. The Rams, world-beaters that they are, may well pick up next year where they left off. But so may the Titans.
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