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VOL. 37 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 16, 2013

Like 'Dare McNair' before, foes will ‘Make Jake,’ Titans win with arm

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Once upon a time the Tennessee Titans were regarded as a reasonably talented team that could only go as far as a young and erratic quarterback could take them.

This quarterback had more than his share of doubters and naysayers, many of whom said he couldn’t hit the side of a barn throwing from the pocket, and that his only skills were rolling out and having the option to throw on the run or tuck it and scramble.

He made wrong reads, they said, was too quick to run, and too often put himself in harm’s way by scrambling.

And during that time, opposing defensive coordinators knew exactly how to game plan against the Titans. They would simply load the box and try to minimize the Titans’ superior running game and force the quarterback to try and win the game by completing passes in one-on-one matchups.

That guy was Steve McNair, and the strategy of forcing him to beat opposing defenses with his arm was derisively named “Dare McNair.”

But the scenario sounds awfully familiar to the next generation of the Tennessee Titans, who are watching a similar situation unfold with starting quarterback Jake Locker.

From the time McNair was named the then Tennessee Oilers’ starting quarterback in 1997 – and even into the Titans most successful seasons of 1999 and 2000 – there were plenty of whispers about whether or not he could make the transition from being an athlete playing quarterback to being a quarterback with athleticism.

Yes, McNair had his moments as a passer during the early days. He had the last-ditch drive in the Super Bowl, for example. There was the fourth quarter comeback in the first game in the new stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals.

But lost in the shuffle of the memories of Titans glory past were several games – including the Music City Miracle game – where it was evident that McNair was very much a work in progress, leaving many to wonder if he would ever fully develop into an NFL quarterback as Jeff Fisher continually promised.

There were even many who wondered at least quietly – and some aloud – if Neil O’Donnell, a veteran who had been through the rigors of life as a successful quarterback, might not have been a better option as Tennessee’s starter.

In 2001, when it was evident that Eddie George had lost a step and the Titans were going nowhere with the same old run-based offense, it was the Mike Heimerdinger who convinced Fisher that if the Titans were going to turn things around on offense, that it was time to hand McNair the keys to the team.

During the next couple of seasons, McNair not only blossomed into a quarterback worthy of being the focal point of the offense, but he played well enough to share an MVP award with Peyton Manning in 2003.

Fast forward a decade ahead, and the Titans are again trying to rebuild around a revamped offensive line and a combination of running backs in Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene, both of whom looked good in the preseason opener against Washington.

And just as George was a marked man in the early 2000s, so Johnson will be once the regular season begins.

That means Locker will find himself in a similar position to the one McNair faced before him. Instead of “Dare McNair” it will be “Make Jake.” Opponents will force Locker to beat them with his arm and athleticism.

The Titans have to hope that game plan will “Make Jake” a batter player, and that Locker will respond as McNair did when he was put to the test.