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. ‚ÄúListen,‚Äù Warren said, ‚Äúdon‚Äôt let ‚Äôem rush you back. Make sure you‚Äôre 100 percent.‚Äù ¬∂ ‚ÄúTo me he‚Äôs not,‚Äù 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. ‚ÄúI care about him, and that‚Äôs not the Willis McGahee who used to get me excited when I saw him playing on TV for Miami.‚Äù
‚ÄúI agree,‚Äù McGahee said. ‚ÄúI ain‚Äôt the Miami McGahee--yet. I was hesitant out there for a while. But it‚Äôs coming.‚Äù
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‚ÄôS BACK, McGahee tested his reconstructed knee for the first time in contact drills against an opponent. If you were grading his 10 carries, you‚Äôd 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‚Äôs 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?
‚ÄúWe may end up having a guy [Henry] who‚Äôs the first- and second-down back, and maybe Willis is the third-down back,‚Äù Mularkey said after the scrimmage. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôll also be times when they‚Äôll be in the backfield together.‚Äù
Henry has said mostly the right things about McGahee, but it‚Äôs clear he‚Äôs not happy about the potential decrease in his workload. McGahee says he would accept any role ‚Äúas long as they don‚Äôt get outrageous and make me a blocking back all the time.‚Äù In the end, though, neither back will be satisfied unless he‚Äôs the focus of the offense.
As McGahee‚Äôs first big test began last Saturday, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, stood in the crowd behind the ropes, giving periodic updates by cellphone to McGahee‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know how high I got up for that one, but that was my highlight of the day,‚Äù McGahee said. Mularkey‚Äôs highlight came on the next play. Turning to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, he said, ‚ÄúRun it again. I want to see him again.‚Äù McGahee was breathing hard, and Mularkey wanted to see what his back had left in the tank. It‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúOn the goal line you need to see how physical a back‚Äôs going to be,‚Äù said Mularkey. ‚ÄúThat touchdown was good to see.‚Äù
On the sideline Rosenhaus was yelling into the phone, ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs scoring touchdowns again, Jannie!‚Äù 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. ‚ÄúThis is where I belong,‚Äù McGahee said. ‚ñ†