For much of his career, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair has shoved aside stereotypes, knocked over defensive tackles, won hearts and eluded more than his share of linebackers.
But now, just past the halfway mark of his ninth NFL season, McNair is standing in the face of a rush he is not seen before.
Compliments. Wave after wave of compliments.
"Just take the good with the bad," McNair said recently. "That's the way I look at things. You can't worry about what people say. Whether people say bad things about you or good things about you, that doesn't change what I'm supposed to do.
"I mean it's always nice when people say good things about you, but what I'm supposed to do is take this team to a championship. Same as before, same as next year, no matter what happens."
McNair, the top-rated passer in the league (103.9 to Peyton Manning's 101.5), is on pace for career highs in attempts, completions, yards passing, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating. Since the start of the 1999 season, he has been to two AFC championship games, one Super Bowl and finished with the best record in the league (13-3 in 2000).
He has also, with offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger leading the parade of X's taking the ball deep on the O's, lifted the ground-pounding Titans offense into the air. After Sunday's 10-3 victory over Jacksonville -- their fifth straight -- the Titans are 8-2, tied with the Colts for first place in the AFC South, and have almost three times as many yards passing as rushing.
Already this season New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has called McNair "the best quarterback in the league."
Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said: "I think he's orchestrating that offense as well as any quarterback is orchestrating any offense in the National Football League. He doesn't make poor decisions and he's a playmaker."
And in a Sept. 21 victory over the New Orleans Saints, McNair became only the fifth player in NFL history to reach both 20,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing, joining Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young. At 30, McNair is also the youngest player to surpass both marks.
And yet his peers have yet to vote him into a Pro Bowl. McNair, who still finished third in the MVP voting last season despite the Pro Bowl snub, was named as an injury replacement for the Pro Bowl in 2000, but did not go because of a shoulder infection that kept him from throwing. Pro Bowl teams are chosen by fans', players' and coaches' votes, with each weighed equally. McNair currently leads the fan balloting.
"You always want some recognition from the guys who play against you for what you do," McNair said. "I'd like to go, but that's out of my hands, I don't decide that. I'd like them to feel like they could vote for me, but like I say that's not my job. My job is to win keep things moving in this offense.
"I think everybody likes what we're doing."
In Jeff Fisher's tenure as coach -- he was promoted from the then-Houston Oilers' defensive coordinator position with six games remaining in the 1994 season -- the Titans have never thrown for more than 3,558 yards in a season.
That was in 2001 during a 7-9 finish. However, at their current pace, this year's Titans will throw for 4,027.
But, no, Fisher didn't climb the mountain to see the burning goal post as the inspiration to put the "Air" back in McNair. He simply looked into the offensive huddle and saw it was the best choice.
"It's that old saying -- If it's not broke, don't fix it," Fisher said. "Right now our passing game is working for us. The quarterback, our supporting cast, the group is doing the right things. It makes no sense to make a dramatic change and not let them do that right now.
"But I get asked about it a lot right now, and I say the answer to all of those questions is the same -- Steve McNair."
There is also Heimerdinger, a leather-lunged, no-nonsense sort who dishes compliments sparingly. But since arriving in Nashville in 2000 from the Denver Broncos, where he was the wide receivers coach, Heimerdinger has been unwavering in his belief McNair could do anything that was needed in an offense.
Heimerdinger quickly offered that McNair reminded him of Elway, a run-pass threat who could power a team into the important games. He also awarded McNair with an offense that, unlike the ones McNair was in early in his career, uses the whole field.
Couple that with the deepest, most athletic group of receivers -- Patriots cornerback Ty Law said they were "the biggest group of receivers that I've seen" -- and you have the mix McNair is stirring these days.
"I just want to try to complete balls, just go from first down to first down," McNair said. "I've always said, I'm like any quarterback, I want to go down the field every time you get the chance, but I don't want to make mistakes. Mistakes get you beat. . . . I'm not going to give the ball away.
"Take what's there and move the ball. It does you no good to throw it deep every play and lose. I'm about winning, whatever it takes to win, 10 yards throwing the ball or 400, just winning."
The only blip has come with the only off-the-field trouble McNair has had since the Oilers took him with their first-round pick in 1995.
In the early-morning hours on May 22, McNair was stopped in downtown Nashville when a police officer said he saw McNair's SUV swerving.
McNair was arrested and charged with driving under the influence as well as a handgun charge. McNair had a 9-millimeter handgun in the console of his Lincoln Navigator, and while he had a permit for the weapon, it is illegal in Tennessee to possess a weapon while impaired.
McNair also registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.18, almost twice Tennessee's legal limit of 0.10 at that time. The limit decreased to 0.08 in July.
Last month a Davidson County judge found sufficient evidence in a preliminary hearing to send the case to a grand jury. About half the DUI cases in Davidson County go to a grand jury and McNair's case isn't expected to be decided until late December at the earliest.
McNair's attorney, Roger May, has challenged the Breathalyzer test and has said McNair was stopped, in part, because he is a high-profile athlete. In the days following the arrest, McNair quickly admitted to making a mistake, including to the grade-school age children who attended his football camp last summer.
He has since taken some heat from fans as his attorney continues to battle the charges. A first-offense DUI conviction carries a minimum fine of $350 and mandatory 48 hours of jail time.
It also would require McNair to lose his driver's license for a year, but he could get a restricted license allowing him to drive to and from work.
There is no minimum jail term for the misdemeanor weapon offense, although it could result in either a suspended sentence or jail sentence to run alongside the DUI, if McNair is convicted. He also could face an additional fine.
"But I think Steve has stayed focused beyond that," said Titans running back Eddie George. "When he's here, he's all business, I don't think it has been a distraction at all, it's just something he has to take care of. It hasn't taken away from what he's doing.
"Right now we're winning and we'll ride [uniform number] Nine to wherever he can take us.
"It's that simple."