On his first play since undergoing back surgery six weeks ago, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair rolled out of the pocket to his right, threw on the run and threaded a pass between defenders to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen for a 15-yard gain and a first down.
At that moment, and after many more just like it over the next 3 1/2 hours today, McNair knew in his mind that all was well once again with his body. By day's end, the Titans also could exult after their 24-21 victory over the previously unbeaten St. Louis Rams, leaving the teams tied for the best record in the NFL at 6-1.
"I thought Steve showed in the first series basically that he's back," said Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, who announced McNair as the starter just an hour before game time. "I was leaning that way [starting him over Neil O'Donnell] late Friday, and I talked to him Saturday. He didn't have the great numbers today, but there haven't been many quarterbacks in the last six weeks that have put up good numbers against this tough [Rams] defense."
These were supposed to be two of the league's elite teams, and for a while, the Titans surely looked the part. They tied a franchise record with a 21-point first quarter. McNair threw for two touchdowns and ran a quarterback draw 10 yards for another against a Rams team that had rolled to six straight victories behind quarterback Kurt Warner.
McNair was unable to sustain that sort of effort the rest of the day, and at times showed the aftereffects of his injury. Still, his ability to move out of the pocket puts immense pressure on opposing defenses.
McNair completed only 13 of 29 passes, but gained 36 yards rushing in a dozen carries. He was sacked just once, "and after that first hit, I put all of that out of my mind and just played," he said.
"I can get better. I didn't have any problems. I took some great hits and I got caught in some awkward positions. But I was okay. It was great to be back out there. I'll be sore tomorrow, but right now, I feel great."
Trailing 21-0 at the half, the Rams crawled back with three second half touchdowns. Then, trailing by three, the Rams recovered an onside kick at their 42 with 2 minutes 9 seconds remaining. With St. Louis out of timeouts, the Rams' kicking team rushed onto the field with 20 seconds left and had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Jeff Wilkins missed a potential tying 38-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
Wilkins was hit by Terry Killens and lay writhing on the ground. Game officials ruled--and TV replays confirmed--that Killens had been blocked into the kicker by Rams center Mike Gruttadauria, and no roughing call was made. Instead, the Titans took over, McNair took a knee and the franchise had its most significant victory since moving to Tennessee from Houston three years ago.
With it went the Rams' improbable visions of an undefeated season.
"It was our feeling after looking back these last six games that we didn't see an awful lot of pressure [against Warner]," Fisher said. "Teams have given up 35, 40 points a game playing cautious and tentative, and we knew we couldn't do that. We just said, 'Let's go for it, let's challenge them, let's pressure them,' and our guys did."
Unable the hear snap counts over the roar of the 66,415 fans at Adelphia Coliseum, the Rams committed a season-high 15 penalties for losses of 97 yards. Six false-start calls were made against beleaguered Rams right tackle Fred Miller, who also was flagged for holding twice. He mostly watched Titans defenders--most notably rookie defensive end Jevon Kearse--repeatedly dash around him and crash into Warner.
Warner managed to throw three more touchdown passes, giving him 21 for the year, a modern record for a quarterback over the first seven games of a season. But Warner lost two fumbles on blindside hits in the first quarter that led to Tennessee touchdowns, and he was sacked six times for losses of 41 yards.
"It was loud, but we should have fought through it," said Warner, who completed 29 of 46 attempts for 328 yards. "They had a good scheme and they blitzed us very well, but we basically gave it away. Penalties and turnovers [three fumbles] really killed us."
So did Kearse, the team's No. 1 pick from Florida and 16th selection overall in the '99 draft. He accused Miller of striking him in the face with an open hand and "cheap-shotting me a couple of times, hitting me in the back or giving me an extra shot.
"I took it upon myself to just take care of it," Kearse said. "When he jumped offsides twice in a row, I knew he was spooked. Most of the time I used my speed and got around him. He was challenging me, trying to big-dog me. He put his hands on my face. I wasn't going to cry to the referee. I think I got in his head a little, no question."