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BACK IN THE RUNNING

Aug. 16, 2004
Aug. 16, 2004

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Aug. 16, 2004

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BACK IN THE RUNNING

The Bills’ Willis McGahee showed flashes of his old form as he put his surgically reconstructed knee to its toughest test yet

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This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

n the second carry of the rest of his life, Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee juked left behind the line of scrimmage, stepped forward tentatively and was swarmed by a host of Cleveland Browns tacklers. As McGahee began to rise from the pile last Saturday, Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren grabbed his right arm. The two shook hands, and Warren drew McGahee close. “Listen,” Warren said, “don’t let ’em rush you back. Make sure you’re 100 percent.” ¶ “To me he’s not,” Warren said later, after a training-camp scrimmage on an unseasonably chilly morning on the woodsy campus of

St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. “I care about him, and that’s not the Willis McGahee who used to get me excited when I saw him playing on TV for Miami.”

“I agree,” McGahee said. “I ain’t the Miami McGahee--yet. I was hesitant out there for a while. But it’s coming.”

It was a day of baby steps for McGahee, the former Miami star who tore three ligaments in his left knee during the national championship game against Ohio State in January 2003. On Saturday, sporting a tattoo on the left side of his neck that said GUESS WHO’S BACK, McGahee tested his reconstructed knee for the first time in contact drills against an opponent. If you were grading his 10 carries, you’d probably give him a B-minus. He ran six times for 33 yards in the regular offense and four times for four touchdowns in goal line situations, sometimes as an I back, sometimes in a split backfield with starter Travis Henry. Three of the four goal line runs came against a defense made up predominantly of second-teamers.

The Bills are still deciding exactly how to use McGahee. First-year coach Mike Mularkey and club president Tom Donahoe, who put his neck on the line in selecting an injured McGahee with the 23rd pick of the 2003 draft, need to see him in more scrimmages and preseason games. There’s also the matter of how to keep Henry, a Pro Bowl player who has rushed for 2,794 yards and scored 25 touchdowns over the past two years, happy and productive. When healthy, McGahee, at 6-feet and 223 pounds, is a more potent outside threat than the 221-pound Henry, but who knows if McGahee will be at or close to 100% when the Bills open their season on Sept. 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars?

“We may end up having a guy [Henry] who’s the first- and second-down back, and maybe Willis is the third-down back,” Mularkey said after the scrimmage. “There’ll also be times when they’ll be in the backfield together.”

Henry has said mostly the right things about McGahee, but it’s clear he’s not happy about the potential decrease in his workload. McGahee says he would accept any role “as long as they don’t get outrageous and make me a blocking back all the time.” In the end, though, neither back will be satisfied unless he’s the focus of the offense.

As McGahee’s first big test began last Saturday, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, stood in the crowd behind the ropes, giving periodic updates by cellphone to McGahee’s mother, Jannie Jones.

With the ball placed on the Cleveland two-yard line, McGahee scored on three straight plays. The second, a sprint to the left pylon and a leap over three defenders, was impressive. “I don’t know how high I got up for that one, but that was my highlight of the day,” McGahee said. Mularkey’s highlight came on the next play. Turning to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, he said, “Run it again. I want to see him again.” McGahee was breathing hard, and Mularkey wanted to see what his back had left in the tank. It’s the kind of test McGahee will have to pass this season in the fourth quarter of games that mean something. McGahee took the handoff and blasted hard into the line behind the right guard. Three Browns surged to the spot, but McGahee burrowed in for the score. “On the goal line you need to see how physical a back’s going to be,” said Mularkey. “That touchdown was good to see.”

On the sideline Rosenhaus was yelling into the phone, “He’s scoring touchdowns again, Jannie!” McGahee trotted to the sideline, totally winded. And though the crowd was nowhere near the size of those he used to thrill in the Orange Bowl, the standing ovation sure felt good. “This is where I belong,” McGahee said. ■

COLOR PHOTOELAINE THOMPSON/APBIG MAC ATTACKMcGahee, who had to be helped off the field in his final college game, carried 10 times against the Browns. COLOR PHOTOphotograph by david bergmanMcGahee, who had to be helped off the field in his final college game, carried 10 times against the Browns.