A Cut Above

Healthy at last, explosive running back Willis McGahee has given the Bills' offense a much-needed boost
November 29, 2004

With just five minutes left in his team's 37--17 victory over the Rams on Sunday, Bills running back Willis McGahee started talking statistics with left tackle Jonas Jennings. While waiting on the field to huddle with his teammates, McGahee told Jennings that he had rushed for 84 yards. Jennings understood what McGahee was getting at--16 more yards and the second-year back would have his fourth 100-yard day in his last six games. "We had to get it," Jennings said later. "We take a lot of pride in getting 100 yards, and we weren't going to take a knee until Willis got there."

McGahee got his 100 yards (on 20 carries) on a day when the Bills showed how far they've come since he replaced Travis Henry as the team's feature back, on Oct. 17. Watch the Buffalo offense these days, and you'll see that Drew Bledsoe is a more efficient quarterback who's more comfortable in the pocket. A suspect line is more cohesive. And defenses are having a harder time figuring out how to scheme against the Bills. The Rams were so focused on shutting down McGahee that other Bills had big games. Tight end Mark Campbell was the brightest star, scoring touchdowns on three of his four receptions.

With the victory, the Bills improved to 4--6. It was Buffalo's fourth win in six games, a run that coincides with McGahee's insertion into the lineup. "I think I've taken pressure off the quarterbacks and the receivers," he says. "I've given them a chance to open things up because defenses have had to concentrate on the run."

McGahee has impressed teammates and opponents with his array of skills. Some rave about his vision. Others talk about his patience. But most of all, McGahee has impressed people with his punishing running style. At 6 feet, 228 pounds, he's bigger than Henry (5'9", 215), and he consistently gains yards after contact. "Willis has the size to make some very good three- to four-yard runs," says Bills offensive coordinator Tom Clements. "And that's a big deal when it's third-and-three, and he gets four yards on a play that's blocked for one or two yards. People look at 30- or 40-yard runs as being big, but if you're in a tight game and you're trying to grind out the clock, you need a guy who can get you tough yards. Willis can do that."

That's a big reason why the Bills took McGahee with the 23rd pick in the 2003 draft, knowing he would miss the season after tearing three ligaments in his left knee playing for Miami in the Fiesta Bowl that January. At minicamps before this season he still had a slight limp, and his running style was best described as tentative. McGahee looked more confident after several goal line rushes during a training camp scrimmage with the Browns, but he opened the season behind Henry on the depth chart.

Given Henry's success over the previous two seasons, when he rushed for 2,794 yards and 23 touchdowns, the decision didn't come as a surprise. (In fact, some questioned why a team that hasn't had a winning season since 1999 would use a first-round pick on a running back when it already had a productive one.) Some in the Bills' organization also weren't enamored with McGahee's practice habits. First-year coach Mike Mularkey wants his backs to get through the hole and keep running well after contact, and he harped on McGahee throughout training camp and into the season about the need to finish runs in practice. McGahee liked to hit the pile, then jog back to the huddle.

"Willis needed to learn how to practice in those first few weeks," Mularkey says. "That had a lot to do with not playing him earlier. If I can't see it in practice--if I don't know how he'll hit a hole or where he'll cut--I'm not going to wait until Sunday to find out. But I think a light went on during our open week [Sept. 26] because there was a different guy on the practice field after that."

McGahee's insertion into the starting lineup three weeks later helped the Bills establish the smashmouth style that Mularkey had been preaching since he got the job. In his third start, a 22--17 upset of the Jets, McGahee carried 37 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. "We were tackling him, hitting him, getting after him and talking a little smack, but he never got tired," says Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who played with McGahee at Miami. "I thought he might wear down, but he took 37 carries and he was still cool."

McGahee says he's still not back to where he was before the injury--his breakaway speed isn't what it was at Miami--but he's pleased with the progress he and the Buffalo offense have made. "You know how some teams seem like they're waiting for something to happen and then, when it does, everything starts falling into place?" he says. "That's what I think has happened here."

COLOR PHOTODAVID BERGMAN GROUND HOG On Sunday, McGahee hit the century mark for the fourth time in six games.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)