They locked him out of their weight room during an offseason contract dispute, but on Sunday they couldn't stonewall him out of their end zone.
In a triumphant return to the site of so many of his golden years and epic memories, the Baltimore Ravens’ veteran quarterback displayed what the Titans missed out on after deciding he was too expensive and old to retain.
McNair delivered his third touchdown pass of the game with 3:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, connecting with former Titans teammate Derrick Mason to engineer the greatest comeback in franchise history as Baltimore rallied from a 19-point deficit. When Mason cut behind cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones to the middle of the end zone, McNair hit him in stride as Baltimore overcame a 19-point deficit to forge a 27-26 victory Sunday at LP Field.
“Steve threw a perfect ball,” Mason said. “It was a play that was meant to happen.”
The game was clinched dramatically as defensive end Trevor Pryce blocked kicker Rob Bironas’ 43-yard field goal attempt with 42 seconds left. The comeback tops the Ravens’ overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2004 where they trailed by 17 points.
After 11 years with the Titans, a Super Bowl berth and an NFL Co-Most Valuable Player season, McNair turned all of his experience and skill against them by passing for 373 yards with a 90.1 passer rating. Prior to kickoff, the Titans honored McNair with a video tribute accompanied by the Green Day song, “Good Riddance.”
“It was a game that meant a lot,” said McNair, who was acquired in June for a fourth-round draft pick and signed to a $32 million contract following an acrimonious squabble that led to him filing a grievance against the Titans. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you a lie and say, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ It was pretty emotional before the game. I thought the tribute was very nice by the organization, but I knew two seconds after that they were going to try to knock me out.”
Yet, they were unable to do so despite intercepting two of his passes.
McNair peppered away at the Titans’ 26-7 advantage by completing 29 of 47 passes, including a 65-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Clayton that marks his longest completion since 2003 and the Ravens' longest offensive play this season.
The win boosts Baltimore (7-2) three games ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race and marks the third comeback McNair has led this year.
McNair’s teammates weren’t convinced by his attempts to downplay the personal significance of this day.
"You could tell this game meant just that little bit more to him than any other game so far,” said Mason, who caught eight passes for 64 yards and scored his first touchdown of the season. “That’s expected when you were with an organization for 11 years and they let you go. You want to come back and you want to prove you can still play.”
Afterward, linebacker Bart Scott joked with McNair’s sons, Trent and Tyler, in the locker room. He asked them where their father was hiding his cape.
On the decisive drive, McNair completed all three of his passes, including a 34-yard sideline strike to rookie Demetrius Williams.
“I’ve never seen anyone with such amazing calmness,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Not at any point, did I ever see him raise an eyebrow. There were several times out there when an eyebrow should have been raised.”
Despite the defense faltering with seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis sidelined with a back injury and surrendering 162 yards rushing, they came up big when it counted the most.
In a play eerily reminiscent of how the Ravens spearheaded their run to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season by toppling the Titans in an AFC divisional playoff win where Keith Washington blocked Al Del Greco’s kick and Anthony Mitchell ran it in for a touchdown, Pryce burst into the backfield unimpeded to knock down Bironas’ kick.
Defensive tackle Justin Bannan cleared a major pathway for the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder.
“That play might have been one of the biggest plays of my career,” Pryce said. “I just have long arms. He cleared everybody out and I felt like nobody touched me. I think I was more laughing at them than the fact that I had just blocked a field goal.
"They looked confident and I heard all of the linemen talking about protection and how they were going to win the game. That was the thing that tickled me a little bit."
Added Scott: “Thank God that Trevor is 6-foot-10 with the long arms of Vlade Divac.”
The Ravens had to contend with multi-dimensional Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young, who ran for a touchdown as the Titans scored 23 consecutive points in the first half. That included 16 off McNair’s mistakes as he backed out of the end zone under pressure for a safety, a touchdown drive off the ensuing free kick and a touchdown run from Travis Henry after McNair’s first of two interceptions to Lamont Thompson.
The defense shut the Titans out in the second half despite allowing their first 100-yard rusher of the season as Henry generated 107 yards on 29 carries.
“They hit us in the mouth early,” Scott said. “We took their best shot in the chin. We grew up as a team.”
As the winningest quarterback in Tennessee history, McNair had the knowledge to lead the Ravens on a day where they struggled to run the football with 50 rushing yards, including 45 from Jamal Lewis.
McNair located rugged blocking fullback Ovie Mughelli on a 30-yard swing pass for the first touchdown of his career in the second quarter to start the comeback. Plus, he set kicker Matt Stover up for a pair of field goals.
Then, the three-time Pro Bowl passer found Mason from 11 yards out to bring the Ravens all the way back against his old team.
“That's why you play this game," McNair said. "You're a competitor. Those are the things you go back and look at and say, `Hey, this is what we get paid for: to come back and win games."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.