I always leaned toward Manning, no doubt based on provincialism and familiarity as much as cold, hard facts. Covering the Indianapolis Colts, I'd see McNair play in person once or twice a year as the Colts took on the Tennessee Titans. Even in limited doses, there was no denying McNair's skills and his impact on Manning's career.
At the time, in the early 2000s, the Colts and Titans were vying for AFC South supremacy. If McNair hadn't been as effective as he was, who knows if Manning would have soared to the top as quickly? McNair was a division rival when Manning and the Colts fed off the rivalry.
We remember McNair today because of the tragedy over the weekend, when he was found dead from gunshot wounds. Police have hinted it was a murder-suicide by the married McNair's girlfriend.
I'm not here to judge the man or the circumstances that led to his death. I didn't know McNair off the field, although most people spoke highly of him. I do stand by my longtime opinion that greatness on the playing field has no correlation with greatness off the field.
For today, let's remember McNair the quarterback, because that's why we know him and why his death hits the sports page.
Closer to home, part of his lasting legacy will be his influence on Manning.
McNair's skills and performance helped push Manning into the player he would become. They met first in the playoffs. They met later at the top of the division standings. They shared the 2003 NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Two quarterbacks inspired Manning because he was so driven to be the best – McNair first, then Brady.
“Steve McNair was one of the greatest competitors I've ever played against,” Manning said in a released statement. “I'll always remember playing against him. Many of our defensive players talked about what a huge challenge it was playing against him. He and I had some great battles against each other.”
When I think of McNair, two adjectives spring immediately to mind: tough and fearless.
He would hang in the pocket seemingly way too long and deliver a strike – while being blasted by Dwight Freeney. He would take off running for a first down, sometimes sliding as quarterbacks do, but sometimes taking the hit for the extra yard.
The reason McNair, 36, retired when he was still young in Favre years was because of his toughness and fearlessness. It took a devastating toll on his knees.
I never considered McNair a scrambler in the classic sense. I always think of scramblers as the quarterbacks who can't rely on their arms. McNair's arm took care of business. He was accurate. He was strong. He could throw fly patterns with the same ease and accuracy as short curl routes.
And McNair's running prowess wasn't limited to the scrambler's style of trying to escape.
He'd run straight at defenders and punish them.
He'd collide with linebackers and after both hit the ground, he'd be the first to pop back up. His running prowess complemented his passing game. Pass rushers were forced to think about angles on McNair that they could ignore against less mobile quarterbacks.
McNair and the Titans had the edge on the Colts early on. The Titans beat the Colts 19-16 in the playoffs following the 1999 season, with McNair an efficient 13 of 24 for 112 yards while Manning was a frustrated 19 of 42 for 227 yards.
McNair's next two wins over Manning were lessons in efficiency. McNair's two-game totals were 33 of 42 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Manning tried to counter with nonstop passing (63 of 92 for 624 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions).
As Manning became more careful with the ball, the Colts tipped the series balance. Manning won his final six meetings against McNair – the last coming when McNair had joined the Baltimore Ravens.
It was a tribute to McNair's skills that Manning's best game in the Colts-Titans series came when McNair was injured and unable to play. Without the threat of McNair on the other side, Manning completed 25 of 33 passes for 425 yards and three scores in a 51-24 win in 2004.
Manning ultimately pulled away from McNair as a quarterback. Down the road, McNair won't be mentioned in the strictest list of all-time greats. But he flourished in his day, he challenged Manning to pick up his game and he left the game with his dignity intact.
Steve McNair earned the right in 2003 to be a subjective choice as the best quarterback in the NFL. Manning wouldn't be the same without the inspiration.