It soon became apparent that McNair’s choice of a Division I-AA school would not negatively affect his NFL draft status when, on April 22, 1995, he was chosen as the third pick in the first round of the draft by the Houston Oilers. At age 22, McNair became the highest-drafted black quarterback ever. In August of 1995, he signed a contract for $28.4 million dollars over seven (7) years, making him the Oiler’s highest-paid player and the highest paid rookie in the history of the NFL.
Steve was trained intensively during the off-season by offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome. Oiler management, including head coach Jeff Fisher, made it clear early on that they had planned to prepare McNair for 2-3 years before putting him in the starting position. They didn’t want to “throw him to the wolves” by putting him in the much different, fast-paced and challenging position of an NFL quarterback too abruptly. Steve’s job for the 1995 and 1996 seasons was to learn the warp-speed, more specified NFL playbook which included steering away from the shotgun offense he had perfected at Alcorn State. He was, however, forced into action early when starting quarterback Chris Chandler was injured in McNair’s first season (1995). After an impressive second-half game against the Detroit Lions, few questioned his ability to make it as a pro. He started the next two games, leading the Oilers to back to back victories over the New York Yet and the Buffalo Bills, respectively.
In 1996, he played in ten games, starting in four, completing 88 of 103 passing attempts racking up 1197 yards and 6 touchdowns. On December 1st he connected with Chris Sanders for an 83-yard touchdown against the New York Jets and recorded his first 300-yard performance (308 yards) versus the Jacksonville Jaguars one week later.
McNair’s career as a starting professional NFL quarterback began in 1997 when the Oilers traded Chris Chandler to the Atlanta Falcons. The franchise relocated to Tennessee the same year putting extra pressure on the quarterback. However, McNair rose to the occasion, accruing impressive stats, leading the team in rushing TDs (8)—his 6.7 yards-per-carry average led all NFL rushers—helped set a franchise mark for the fewest interceptions in a single season (13).
In 1998, the Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans, and McNair became the youngest franchise quarterback. For a second season he led all NFL quarterbacks with 559 rushing yards and lowered the franchise mark for fewest single season interceptions to 10. He was voted most improved NFL player in an ESPN poll, ranking 4th in the NFL in third-down completion percentage (62.3%) and led the Titans to nine scores during “two minute drills”. He also became only the fourth NFL quarterback to reach a 3,000 yard passing mark.
The 1999-2000 season could be compared to a roller-coaster ride, with ups and downs, unexpected twists and turns and a few high altitude drops. McNair caused hearts to drop when he missed five games September 19-October 17 following low back surgery to repair a ruptured lumbar disc. However, shocking his team, fans, and even medical professionals, Steve returned to play much earlier than expected and helped the team to the AFC Championship. He threw for a career-high five touchdowns and 291 yards against Jacksonville (12/26), and joined George Blanda (5) and Warren Moon (3) as the only players in franchise history passing for five or more touchdowns in a single game. In the AFC Championship, leading the Titans to that all-important win over Jacksonville, Steve threw for 112 yards and one TD (his first career postseason touchdown pass) to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen. McNair also rushed for 91 yards and 2 TDs on nine carries. On January 30, 2000—Super Bowl XXXIV—Steve McNair took the field as only the second black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. He established a new Bowl record among quarterbacks by putting up 64 rushing yards on 8 carries, including the longest rush by a quarterback—23 yards. He helped to bring the Titans back from a 16-0 second-half deficit, falling one yard short of the end zone on the final play to Kevin Dyson for a 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams. And, yes, there was the Music City Miracle.
His performance for the 1999-2000 season prompted fans to name him to the Pro Bowl, replacing Brian Griese (shoulder surgery), however, McNair was sidelined for the game due to his own shoulder injury. September 10th against Kansas City, (2nd game of the 2000-2001 season) McNair was forced to leave the game after suffering a helmet-to-sternum hit. He was not expected to play the next game against Pittsburgh, but was once again called into action when Neil O’Donnell was injured. And, once again, he gets the job done. Number 9 completed 3 passes for 55 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to Erron Kinney for the win. He then threw for three touchdowns and led the team to four scoring drives of 80 or more yards against the New York Giants. Steve orchestrated the second comeback victory of the season moving the ball 62 yards in 10 plays (including a 17-yard completion to wide receiver Derrick Mason on fourth-and-eight) to set up the winning 29-yard field goal with four seconds left in regulation play. According to teammates, Steve gave his first-ever (by his own admission) “angry halftime speech”, which they credited as a reason for the win.
In his 2001-2002 season with the Tennessee Titans, McNair established a career best, throwing at least one touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games to end the regular season and became the first franchise quarterback since Warren Moon to pass for at least 20 touchdowns in a season. He was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the second time of the season (and third of his career).
McNair started every game of the 2002-2003 season and led the Titans to ten victories in their last eleven games with a perfect 5-0 December record (without ever practicing due to a stretch of separate injuries—turf toe, strained ribs and back pain). He finished third in MVP voting behind Rich Gannon and Brett Favre and was named All-Pro by Sports Illustrated. November 10th (against Houston) he surpassed Warren Moon’s franchise record with 22 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. He also became the 5th quarterback in NFL history to record at least 19,000 passing yards and 3,000 yards rushing on December 22 at Jacksonville. In an AFC Divisional Playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1/11/03), McNair passed for 338 yards and 2 touchdowns.
In 2003, McNair received much recognition in the football world, no doubt related to his 100.4 passer rating. He was named Associated Press’ co-MVP (shared with Peyton Manning), Sports Illustrated Player of the Year, Sports Illustrated All-Pro, second team Associated Press All-Pro, Football Digest second team All-Pro, captain of Howie Long’s Tough Guy Team, and Pro Bowl starter. He completed 250 of 400 pass attempts covering 3,215 yards, nailing 24 touchdowns, and suffering only 7 interceptions. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October. He also led the Titans to a Wild Card Playoff Victory at Baltimore (1/3/04), particularly a 35-yard drive leading to a game-winning Gary Anderson field goal with 29 seconds remaining. He battled right calf and left ankle injuries early in the season as well as dislocating his right fourth finger against Indianapolis (9/14).
In 2004, McNair played and started in eight games, missing as many with an extremely unusual sternum injury which ultimately required an unorthodox surgery (December 28) to take a piece of bone from his hip and graft it into the gap of the sternum; synthetic bone was also placed to help fill in any open spaces. Steve was required to use a bone stimulator device to help speed the bone growth and recovery. He finished his 10th season with 72 wins becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in wins by a starting quarterback, surpassing Warren Moon’s previous record of 70 wins.
McNair returned to the Titans, playing 14 games in the 2005 season. The Titans then had the youngest and most inexperienced team in the NFL.
On April 30, 2006, the Titans gave permission for McNair and his agent, Bus Cook, to speak with the Baltimore Ravens. On June 7, 2006, the Titans and Ravens worked out a deal to send McNair to Baltimore in exchange for a 4th-round pick in the 2007 draft. The next day, McNair flew to Baltimore, passed a physical, and was announced the newest member of the Ravens—leaving most Titan fans heartbroken. The 2006 Raven season ended with McNair starting every game, missing only small portions of two games (Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns) due to minimal injuries. He led the Ravens to a 13-3 record and an AFC North Championship but later fell to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Playoffs.
The 2007 season for Steve and the Ravens started out on the wrong foot as Steve suffered an injury in the first game that limited his mobililty and lingered throughout the season. Steve later had to have surgery and ended the season on injured reserve.