Steve McNair: A Statistical Retrospective
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Beyond the intangibles that made him such a memorable person and player - the toughness, accessibility, willingness to help young players, and awareness of his place in the community - Steve McNair had an impressive, if sometimes overlooked, career from a statistical perspective. Most great quarterbacks have stat peaks as McNair did, but there are a few interesting things to point about his career. The proprietary Football Outsiders numbers we'll be using - DVOA, DYAR, and others - are explained here.
The Early Years
Steve McNair was selected third overall in the 1995 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. After sitting for the better part of his first two seasons, he was ready to make his mark in 1997. In what was essentially his rookie year as a starter, McNair went through the growing pains you'd expect, with the backdrop of a team in transition (they were the Tennessee Oilers in 1997). He finished 23rd in DYAR and 26th in DVOA, throwing for 2,665 yards and 14 touchdowns in a run-heavy offense led by rushers Eddie George ... and Steve McNair. He ran for 674 yards and eight touchdowns on 104 carries, which gave him the best rushing DYAR among quarterbacks that season by far. Young quarterbacks with wheels often outrun their mistakes, though. McNair was about to up the ante and become one of the best pure quarterbacks in the game.
The Peak Era
From 1998 through 2003, McNair averaged 257 completions in 424 attempts for 3,034 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. In a power offense like Tennessee's those stats aren't overwhelming when you put them up against Peyton Manning's or Tom Brady's in sheer volume, which is where efficiency comes into play. McNair's best DVOA years were 2001 (22.4%), when he finished second to Kurt Warner, and 2003 (31.9%), when he finished second to Manning. One runner-up to the quarterback whose team just barely beat his in the Super Bowl two years before, and one runner up to the man he shared the NFL MVP award with in 2003. In both of those years, he finished third in DYAR.
So by any measure - play-by-play efficiency or judged in the aggregate - Steve McNair was just about as good as you could get in the early part of this decade.
From 1999 through 2003, he never finished lower than 14th in DYAR or DVOA, and he had a nice renaissance after a downturn in 2004, when he proved more susceptible than usual to the injuries that seemed to bedevil him constantly. It was the beginning of the end for McNair, but the old pro had a few good years left.
The Last Ride
In 2005, his final year in Tennessee, McNair finished 13th in DYAR and 16th in DVOA, However, it's important to remember that the Titans were going through a salary cap purge at this time - the team went 4-12, and Drew Bennett led all Titans receivers with a DYAR of 13 (ranked 71st) and a DVOA of -11.2% (also 71st). McNair had a little more help from tight ends Eron Kinney and Ben Troupe that year (a common theme - his tight ends often outdid his receivers in efficiency), but none of his supporting cast lived up to his numbers. After the 2005 season, the Titans and Ravens started talking trade for McNair, and Baltimore gave up a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft for the veteran. Baltimore finished first in Passing DVOA in 1996 behind the efforts of Vinny Testaverde, but hadn't ranked higher than 20th since.
That changed when Air McNair rolled up, reunited with Derrick Mason (his best receiver in Tennessee), and gave the Ravens an offense to talk about. McNair finished that last full season ranked 10th in DYAR and 14th in DVOA, and Baltimore's 13-3 record was the best in franchise history. Despite a first-round playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts, enthusiasm was high, and the hope was that McNair had enough left in the tank to keep that balanced offense going as the always-dominant defense led the way. Sadly, it was not to be. Age and injuries caught up with the always-tough McNair, and it was evident in an abbreviated 2007 season.
It was time to go.
In 13 seasons, Steve McNair started 10 playoff games, and the teams he played for went 5-5. He threw 11 interceptions against 6 touchdowns. In Super Bowl XXXIV against the Rams, he threw for no touchdowns, but all non-penalty yards on the final drive that came up one yard short came from McNair's arm or his feet. He made three Pro Bowls and won the aforementioned NFL Co-MVP award.
Football Outsiders' similarity scores are based on those invented by baseball stat guru Bill James in order to compare different players in different eras. You can read about the formula here. We used a three-year mean for the McNair similarity scores in question, and we took McNair's 2001-2003 - his best sustained body of work. The quarterbacks most similar to McNair include Phil Simms, Steve Bartkowski, and Jim Kelly. In a one-year stretch, comparables include Mark Brunell in 2001, John Elway in 1991, and Bartkowski in 1983. Two-year comps include Kelly, Bartkowski, and Jake Delhomme at their best. James used similarity scores in his book, The Politics of Glory, to discuss whether certain players deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. From a career perspective, McNair's above Bartkowski or Delhomme in the discussion, but he didn't ride the kind of sustained dominance that Kelly and Elway did. Perhaps Mark Brunell is the best comparable here - a sneaky-mobile quarterback who did a lot of really great things with some interesting teams, and should be remembered for a long time. Actually, McNair's and Brunell's career totals are strikingly similar, though Brunell had success a little earlier in his career.
Early in his career, McNair benefitted most from the efficiency of tight end Frank Wychek, who finished eighth in DYAR among tight ends in 1997, and fourth in 1998. Jackie Harris finished 14th among tight ends in 1999. IN those three seasons, Yancey Thigpen had the best DYAR among all Tennessee receivers, finishing 31st in 1999.
Throughout his career, no receiver bonded with McNair quite like Derrick Mason. The waterbug from Michigan State was selected in the fourth round of the 1997 draft, and his best years generally coincided with his quarterback's. Through McNair's 2001-2003 period, Mason led the team's receivers in DYAR (3rd, 15th, and 3rd) and DVOA (5th, 15th, 3rd). When McNair went to Baltimore, Mason was already there, and the two combined for a little more offensive firepower.
When it is said of a player that "he's more than the sum of his stats", that's generally a rationalization of some less-than-spectacular numbers. In McNair's case, the argument can be made that no matter what his numbers had been, the stats would not have told the tale. A leader on the field and in the community, a tough guy who played well through a ridiculous number of injuries, a mentor to young players (including Vince Young, the man who would replace him for a time in Tennessee), and someone that gained the admiration of the people who covered his exploits. I asked Terry McCormick of the Nashville City Paper for a few words about McNair:
Steve McNair's legacy will always be his competitiveness and his ability to will himself to play through an assortment of injuries to lead his team. But even more than that, McNair was always very accommodating and approachable when it came to dealing with fans and the media. It's just hard to believe he's gone so suddenly.
Indeed it is. The statistical breakdowns are small stuff in the face of a sudden and tragic death, but it's important, I think, to remember how good Steve McNair really was. Not quite a Hall-of-Famer, but a quarterback whose presence would have made any team better. And at his best, he should be remembered as one of the quarterbacks in this decade that had a great run of performance.
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