NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the pantheon of country music, there’s almost always a few songs about a cheating heart, an ugly breakup or unrequited love. Music City strummers and songwriters could probably come up with a fittingly sorrowful ballad about the bitter divorce between the Tennessee Titans and quarterback Steve McNair.
McNair was once the prince of the city for the gritty way he led the Titans to a Super Bowl berth in the 1999 season, endured surgeons’ scalpels multiple times and manufactured a co-Most Valuable Player season in 2003.
Five months after being discarded by the Titans following an extremely public contract dispute that degenerated into the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback being banned from their facility and him filing a grievance against the team, McNair returns for the first time today to LP Field as the headliner of the Baltimore Ravens’ offense.
The former face of the Titans (2-6) will incongruously be under center for the Ravens (6-2), their old AFC Central archrival.
“This is not a family reunion for me,” McNair said. “This is a business trip, and I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s hard to believe, though, that this isn’t going to be highly emotional personal experience for McNair, who has emerged as a sympathetic figure in Tennessee circles and is likely to be recognized by the Titans in a tribute before kickoff.
Especially not with how McNair’s relationship with the Titans unraveled after 11 years of partnership.
“I think he’s going to treat it like one of the biggest games of his career because of how he was handled and how much he meant to the organization,” said cornerback Samari Rolle, a teammate of McNair’s in Tennessee for eight seasons. “I think it will definitely be emotional for him.”
In April after stalled contract negotiations with his agent, McNair was told by a trainer that upper management -- owner Bud Adams and team general counsel Steve Underwood -- had instructed him to not allow him to work out at their headquarters.
The team was concerned about being liable for his entire $23.46 million salary-cap figure if he got injured working out. After winning a grievance against the Titans to work out, they barred him until he passed another physical.
At that point, the relationship was so splintered that both McNair and the Titans were looking for an exit strategy.
Enter Baltimore, which needed a proven quarterback to replace an erratic Kyle Boller.
After months of limbo status, McNair was traded to the Ravens on June 6 for a fourth-round draft pick and signed to a five-year, $32 million contract.
“You can’t take a lot of things personal, I treat it as business,” McNair said. “It’s unfortunate it happened the way it happened, but that’s part of it. You have to deal. What’s behind me is behind me.
“I don’t want to stir up old things. But I knew it was going to happen when we play the Titans. Bygones are bygones. I’m focused and I’ve got tunnel vision to get this team where we want to go, which is back to the playoffs and back to the Super Bowl.”
Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis stirred the pot further by suggesting there was a racial element to how McNair was treated, stating that Peyton Manning or Brett Favre wouldn’t have been treated that way.
"I don't ever want to turn it into a black-white issue," Lewis told ESPN. "But it would really puzzle me, seriously, if anybody would ever tell Brett Favre, if anybody would ever tell Peyton Manning not to walk into the Indianapolis facility.
"No. I can never understand that, and I never will because it's heartless. It's heartless to do a man like that without an explanation.
McNair downplayed Lewis’ theory and said he didn’t believe that was why it happened, adding he tries "not to get into that racial statement. I'm all about giving people the benefit of the doubt."
McNair, who is African-American, was replaced by his protégé, Vince Young, who is also African-American.
The Titans issued a statement denying Lewis’ implication.
"As we said repeatedly through the difficult offseason process with Steve, we definitely could have handled the situation better, but the notion that race had something to do with it has no place in this discussion," the Titans said. "We respect Steve a great deal for what he did and meant to this franchise. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a franchise in the NFL that has done more for African-American quarterbacks than this one, and we hope that Steve will someday join Warren Moon in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Regardless of McNair’s attempts to downplay his feelings, those closest to him believe otherwise. They also anticipate a sharp, focused performance from McNair.
“Is there an added whatever for Steve? I’m thinking there probably is because of what happened,” said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who played with McNair in Tennessee. “But you can’t allow your situation or your circumstances to dictate how you go out there and play.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens haven’t forgotten the debacle that transpired here last season as they lost 25-10 and didn’t generate a first down until the third quarter and gained a franchise-low 14 rushing yards, including nine yards and a fumble from Jamal Lewis on 10 carries. They were brutalized at the line of scrimmage by Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch for three sacks.
“We still remember that we didn’t play very well at all,” tight end Todd Heap said. “It definitely left a sour taste in our mouth. We didn’t get our season started off right. Now we’re at the point that we’re trying to build something this year and we definitely can’t lose our focus going into this week.”
As for McNair, he’s trying to balance the attention between all of the off-field drama and his on-field focus. If not for the contract squabble, he could just as easily be quarterbacking the AFC South’s last-place team.
“I’m blessed to be here,” McNair said. “I think things happen for a reason. I’m sure I’ll get a little emotional. I’m not going to say that I’m not. I think once the national anthem is over and the ball is kicked off, it’s all about football.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.