Building a Myth (Or: Why I honor Steve McNair by saying he didn’t deserve the 2003 MVP)

As a Colts fan, it is impossible to remember Steve McNair without thinking of 2000, 2003, and 2007.  In January of 2000, his Titans beat the Colts in Indianapolis in the playoffs.  In January of 2007, the Colts beat his Ravens in Baltimore.  The two essentially cancel each other out.  As we ponder the career of Steve McNair, football player, we tend to focus on the year of 2003 when he shared the AP MVP award with Peyton Manning, forever linking the two players.

It is the premise of this article that there is no reasonable argument why anyone should have voted for Steve McNair in 2003. 

Why would I choose to make that case the day after his death? 

Because I want to honor him. 

Bear with me, and it will all become clear.

  • First, let’s look back at the comparative seasons for Manning and McNair in 2003.
Comp   Att % Yards YPA TD INT Rating
McNair 250 400 62.5 3125 8.0 24 7 100.4
Manning 379 566 67.0 4267 7.5 29 10 99

The ‘rate stats’ are incredibly similar.  Manning hit a much higher percentage of his passes, but McNair had a better YPA.  Their ratings were essentially equal.  The biggest difference is that Manning threw the ball 166 more times than McNair.  In fact, Manning almost completed as many passes as McNair even attempted.  Given the similarity in their ‘rate stats’, it’s logical to assume that Manning was the better choice for MVP.  The stats only told part of the story, however.

  • Though we at 18to88.com despise the argument that QBs are ‘responsible’ for wins and losses, MVP voters generally find it to be a convincing case.  In this case, both quarterbacks led teams with 12-4 records.  Some would find it logical the two would have tied for the award.

That position ignores a very important fact.  The Colts were 12-4 but won the AFC South by virtue of sweeping the Titans.  Manning’s team beat McNair’s team twice in head to head play.

The discrepancy goes beyond that, however.  McNair played hurt for much of the 2003 season.  In fact, he missed two full games and a large part of another in which the Titans trailed by double digits when McNair left (Atlanta, week 12).  During those games, the Titans went 3-0. 

Not only did Manning’s team beat McNair’s team twice, McNair was only 9-4 as a starter.  Both Billy Volek and Neil O’Donnell won games in which McNair sat.  Not only was Manning’s record better than McNair’s, but the Titans record without McNair was better than their record with him.

  • McNair’s backups posted numbers as good as his.
Comp Att % Yards YPA TD INT Rating
Steve McNair 250 400 62.5 3215 8 24 7 100.4
Billy Volek 44 69 63.8 545 7.9 4 1 101.4
Neil O’Donnell 18 27 66.7 232 8.6 2 1 102.7

Of the three,  McNair posted the lowest rating. That was ironic, because he actually led the NFL in passer rating among QBs with enough qualifying attempts.  Both of his backups posted higher completion percentages than did McNair.  It is simply impossible to claim that McNair was the MVP of the NFL when both his backup QBs were not only competent statistically, but actually surpassed him in the rate stats, while also winning 3 games.

SO IN SUMMARY, McNair and Manning posted similar rate stats, but Manning had far more dominant volume stats.  Manning’s team beat McNair’s team twice, and won the division.   The Titans actually won three games without McNair.  McNair’s backups were more than competant and actually played quite well in his absence. 

What happened to convince enough voters to side with McNair when all the logical arguments seemed to favor Manning?

Simply put, Steve McNair won them over with his courage and guts. Peyton Manning was the real 2003 NFL MVP.  In any other year, the vote wouldn’t have been close.  In that year however, he was up against one of the most highly respected veteran quarterbacks in the NFL.  McNair played hurt and played hard all year.  Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a myth rose up around him.  Titans players referred to him as “Superman” because of his ability to play through pain.  SI’s Michael Silver likened him to a gun slinger.   Stories of McNair’s leadership, courage, pain threshold, and intangible ability to rally his team became the stuff of modern legend, despite little statistical evidence that he was more valuable than even the other QBs on his team.

Some today have the mistaken notion that the media fawns over Peyton Manning without cause.  In 2003, many of them ignored logic and voted for the guy who made them feel good.  It wasn’t Manning; it was McNair.

Steve McNair was not the co-MVP in the NFL because he was actually the most valuable player on the field.  The evidence just doesn’t support it.  He won the 2003 MVP because of what he meant to people, because of what he represented.   At the time, the vote was a mistake, but now it serves as a testament to the man and his impact on his teammates and his many admirers. 

Now that he’s gone, it’s important to remember those qualities that made him great.  He worked so hard, was so fearless, and was such a team leader that knowledgeable football people thought he was more valuable than he actually was.  In other words, he was a better person in the locker room than he was a player on the field.  For a man who happened to be very good player on the field, that is high praise indeed. 

Now that he’s gone, many will be tempted to remember him as better than he was.  That is selfish, and does not honor the departed.  Instead, we should remember him as he truly was.  He was a modern myth, the kind of man people wanted to believe in, even when logic dictated otherwise.

I mean that as a higher kind of honor…

even if I still say he didn’t deserve to be 2003 NFL MVP.

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