Commentary

McGahee a difference-maker for an offense that needs one

Willis McGahee fits right in on the talkative Ravens. Better yet, the former Buffalo RB is talking about how this offense and this team is a perfect fit for him, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: August 5, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Talk smack in the Buffalo Bills locker room and you're apt to be eyeballed like a guy strolling down Chippewa Street, wearing Bermuda shorts in December.

That is why Willis McGahee -- a Miami native who played his college career for the hometown Hurricanes -- was about as miscast in Western New York as an order of hot wings without celery and blue cheese at times during his four NFL seasons there.

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Break out the verbal trash with the Baltimore Ravens, though, and, well, you're just one of the guys. For this talented and talkative team, shrinking violets need not apply. Led by mouthy, filibustering veterans like middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens aren't shy about taking on players who unabashedly love to talk the talk. What they need even more from McGahee than just boisterous yakking, however, is big yardage.

Indeed, what his new teammates expect from the four-year veteran tailback --acquired from Buffalo in a March trade, after which he promptly signed a seven-year contract with a maximum value slightly in excess of $40 million -- is an offensive playmaker who can walk the walk.

Or, more accurately, run the run.

And while his debut performance here Saturday was less than auspicious -- McGahee unofficially rushed for nine yards on five carries in the annual scrimmage against the Washington Redskins -- there seems little doubt the Ravens' new tailback is a guy who could be a difference-maker for an offense that could use one.

"He gives us another dimension," said wide receiver Mark Clayton after the scrimmage. "People who didn't see him play that much when he was up in Buffalo might be surprised at how quick he is, how he can get outside with the ball. But at the same time, he's a big guy, and he can run [defenders] over, too. Plus, he catches the ball, you know? There's a lot there to like. Really, for what we need to do, he's perfect."

Actually, perfect was the word McGahee chose, upon arriving here after the trade, to describe his second NFL incarnation.

"Perfect scenario, perfect situation, perfect team," he noted of his new environs. "It doesn't get any better than this."

But it can get better for the Ravens, whose top-rated and pillaging defense of 2006 needs to be better complemented by the offense if Baltimore is to advance deeper in the playoffs and perhaps contend for its second Super Bowl title of this millennium. Somewhat surprisingly, the Ravens' running game ranked only 25th in the league last season, its worst standing in that category in the franchise's 11-year history.

Although One-time work-horse back Jamal Lewis -- one of only four men in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season -- ran for 1,132 yards last season, he averaged less than four yards per carry for a second straight year and had just three carries for more than 20 yards. As a team, the Ravens averaged an anemic 3.4 yards per rush, second-worst in the league, and the rushing attack, with Lewis mostly pounding away off-tackle, became stodgy and predictable.

When the Bills dangled McGahee in trade talks, feeling he had worn out his welcome and would never re-sign with Buffalo when he became an unrestricted free agent following the 2007 season, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome paid attention. McGahee, after all, is two years younger and infinitely more versatile than Lewis. And Newsome assessed that the deal, in which the Ravens surrendered only third- and seventh-round selections in this year's draft, offered a fresh start for all parties.

Never mind that the acquisition of McGahee introduced another strong, vocal personality into the Baltimore locker room. When the confident McGahee spoke out in Buffalo, as when he suggested the franchise might be better off financially if it relocated to Toronto, his was the most distinguishable voice. With the Ravens, he can barely be heard in the cacophony that has become a Baltimore hallmark.

The man who described his running style as "one of a kind", is just one of many trying to be heard amid the usual din here.

"It's comfortable, that might be the best way to describe it," said McGahee, who twice in his three healthy seasons with the Bills ran for more than 1,000 yards. "In some ways, it feels good, really, not to be the center of attention. You can blend in a little more here, it's a veteran team with a lot of leaders, and you don't feel like all the weight is on you. I mean, I know people are depending on me here, but there are so many other areas where this team is so good, you know?"

But with McGahee, who overcame a graphic knee injury in the national championship game against Ohio State in 2003 Fiesta Bowl that ended his college career and forced him to miss his entire rookie season in the NFL, the Ravens have a chance to be better. One major difference: Lewis all but mandated that the Baltimore offense have a lead blocker in the backfield. In a design that's been tweaked for 2007 by coordinator Rick Neuheisel, the Ravens now run a lot of plays from one-back sets, with no fullback aligning in front of McGahee. And McGahee, who coach Brian Billick described as a "multiple back" after one spring minicamp, will afford the Ravens more flexibility and allow the run game to get outside once in a while.

There has been some concern that McGahee, whose résumé includes just one NFL season in which he logged more than 300 carries, might not be durable or battle-tested enough for the more ambitious workload he figures to assume in Baltimore. But in the six years Lewis was healthy, he averaged 303.7 rushing attempts. That's less than one more rush per game than McGahee, who averaged 289.3 attempts with the Bills in his three years as their starter.

McGahee, 25, insists he is prepared to have a lot more tread rubbed off his tires this year. And ready to turn decibel level into deeds and, maybe, into a Super Bowl.

"Like I've said before, talk is cheap," McGahee said. "You can't go out and buy yourself a [Super Bowl] ring. You've got to earn that with your actions, and that's what I plan to do."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.