After keeping him under wraps for most of two seasons, the
Oilers have finally called upon Steve (Air) McNair to show them
the way back to the playoffs, where they haven't been in three
years. But the 6'2", 224-pound McNair, the third pick in the
1995 draft, can't do it alone. Someone must consistently come
down with the football when McNair airs it out, someone other
than tight end Frank Wycheck, who was the team's leading
receiver last season with a paltry 53 catches.
That puts the onus on wideout Chris Sanders, another member of
the rookie class of '95, to fulfill the potential that has been
apparent since he arrived with McNair as a third-round selection
from Ohio State. In his rookie year Sanders caught 35 passes,
averaged a gaudy 23.5 yards per catch and scored nine
touchdowns, including seven in the team's final seven games.
Oilers coach Jeff Fisher was so impressed that he has gone so
far as to compare Sanders to Jerry Rice. Then last year some
opposing defenses started treating Sanders like Rice: constant
double teams. Sanders wound up with 48 catches, only four
touchdowns and a strong dose of humility.
"To be the best, you've got to break those double coverages,"
says Sanders, who has great speed.
Two off-season changes should help Sanders get closer to his
goal: assistant coach Les Steckel's promotion to offensive
coordinator, replacing the fired Jerry Rhome, and McNair's
elevation to starting quarterback, following the off-season
trade of veteran Chris Chandler to the Falcons. While Rhome
typically sent Sanders on vertical patterns up the sidelines,
Steckel plans to use him on crossing routes and employ a variety
of tactics (motion, three-receiver sets, breaking off patterns
underneath coverage) to give the 6'1" receiver some room to
McNair, who started four games last year after throwing only 80
passes in '95, and Sanders clicked immediately last season. They
hooked up 21 times for 518 yards (a staggering 24.7-yard
average) and three touchdowns, including an 83-yard strike in a
35-10 victory over the Jets last December.
If Sanders doesn't make it big, it won't be for lack of effort.
He showed up at the Oilers' practice facility to lift weights
the day after the '96 season ended. His constant off-season
companion was a ball-throwing machine. He got his work ethic
from his mother, who saw him through a difficult adolescence; in
elementary school, Sanders says, he was suspended for throwing
rocks and books at his teachers. "I work as hard as I can," he
says, "because I know what real work is like, and believe me,
this is a good job." In high school Sanders worked at Lowery Air
Force Base in Denver, waiting tables and stacking dishes for
$6.95 an hour. He worked for about the same wage cleaning pools
one collegiate summer in Columbus.
Sometimes Sanders's desire gets him in trouble with Fisher. One
day in practice during his rookie year, the Oilers were running
a red-zone drill when Sanders dived for a ball. "Stay off the
ground, Chris," Fisher barked. "The game is Sunday." Sanders
apologized and stayed out of trouble until a two-minute drill at
the end of practice, which he completed by making an acrobatic
catch at the back of the end zone and landing on his shoulder.
The players went nuts, clapping their approval. Fisher went
ballistic. "What did I say before, Chris?" the coach asked.
"Don't dive," Sanders answered.
"And what did you do?" Fisher asked.
"I dove, Coach."
Then Fisher turned and addressed the team. "You guys know
something? That's how important this game is to him."
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sanders, the talented wideout who created lofty expectations with his promising rookie season two years ago, must now rise to meet them. [Chris Sanders in game against Pittsburgh Steelers]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (fourth in AFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 121.9 (6) 193.6 (21) 315.5 (18)
DEFENSE 86.6 (2) 201.6 (13) 288.1 (6)
Hard to Pin Down
More revealing than a quarterback's sack total is his total
compared with the number of times he dropped to pass. Though the
line's quality and a quarterback's propensity to leave the
pocket affect the sack rate (a scrambler like the Jaguars' Mark
Brunell opens himself up to more sacks), the figure helps to
show which passers recognize danger and get rid of the ball
best. By this standard Dave Krieg, acquired this off-season by
the Oilers to back up Steve McNair, was the most difficult NFL
quarterback to sack last year (minimum 300 dropbacks).
Best Sack Rate, 1996
Dropbacks Sacks Dropbacks/Sacks
Dave Krieg, Bears 391 14 27.9
Troy Aikman, Cowboys 483 18 26.8
Mike Tomczak, Steelers 417 16 26.1
Jim Everett, Saints 483 19 25.4
Frank Reich, Jets 345 14 24.6
Worst Sack Rate, 1996
Dropbacks Sacks Dropbacks/Sacks
Tony Banks, Rams 416 48 8.7
Dave Brown, Giants 447 49 9.1
Steve Young, 49ers 350 34 10.3
Jim Kelly, Bills 416 37 11.2
Mark Brunell, Jaguars 607 50 12.1
The Air McNair era should be in full swing by November. The
stretch drive includes a Nov. 2 home date against Jacksonville
plus four games in an 18-day stretch beginning on Nov. 16 at
Jacksonville and concluding with games at Dallas on Thanksgiving
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 16 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .492
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Jeff Fisher
QB Steve McNair 143 att. 88 comp. 61.5% 1,197 yds.
6 TDs 4 int. 90.6 rtg.
RB Eddie George 335 att. 1,368 yds. 4.1 avg. 23 rec.
182 yds. 7.9 avg. 8 TDs
RB Ronnie Harmon 29 att. 131 yds. 4.5 avg. 42 rec.
488 yds. 11.6 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Chris Sanders 48 rec. 882 yds. 4 TDs
WR Derrick Mason (R)[*] 53 rec. 865 yds. 2 TDs
WR Willie Davis 39 rec. 464 yds. 6 TDs
TE Frank Wychek 53 rec. 511 yds. 6 TDs
PK Al Del Greco 35/35 PATs 32/38 FGs 131 pts.
KR Mel Gray 50 ret. 24.5 avg. 0 TDs
PR Mel Gray 22 ret. 9.3 avg. 0 TDs
LT Brad Hopkins 6'3" 306 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Bruce Matthews 6'5" 298 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Mark Stepnoski 6'2" 269 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Kevin Donnalley 6'5" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 308 lbs. 10 games 0 starts
LE Anthony Cook 44 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
LT Gary Walker 45 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
RT Henry Ford 39 tackles 1 sack
RE James Roberson 26 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Joe Bowden 73 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Barron Wortham 78 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Lonnie Marts[*] 73 tackles 7 sacks
CB Steve Jackson 45 tackles 0 int.
SS Blaine Bishop 109 tackles 1 int.
FS Marcus Robertson 82 tackles 4 int.
CB Darryll Lewis 69 tackles 5 int.
P Reggie Roby 67 punts 44.4 avg.
Rookie statistics for final college year