Willis McGahee leaves murky picture for Ravens’ running game

June 05, 2009 | Luke Jones

As Willis McGahee laid on the field following a violent hit from Steelers cornerback Ryan Clark late in the AFC Championship game, it was the culmination of a bitterly disappointing season for the Ravens running back.  McGahee would prove to be okay, but his future with the Ravens beyond this season is up in the air.

After rushing for 1,207 yards and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2007—his first season with the Ravens—McGahee reported to training camp out of shape and was slow to learn Cam Cameron’s offensive system last season.  It was quite apparent that McGahee was in John Harbaugh’s doghouse and remained there for much of the season, as Le’Ron McClain became the primary option in the running game with Ray Rice getting a large number of carries as well.

It didn’t help that McGahee dealt with several nagging injuries throughout the season, including knee, eye, and ankle problems, as he finished with a career-low 671 yards.  In fact, McGahee had virtually disappeared from the offensive game plan before rushing for a 77-yard touchdown against Dallas in Week 16 and later scoring two touchdowns in the conference championship game before the violent collision.

Conventional wisdom would tell you he would come back determined to regain his No. 1 status in the Ravens’ offense after a disappointing season and the violent hit that landed him in the hospital, right?

After undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, McGahee had been present at OTAs but skipped last week’s “voluntary” workouts.  When he resurfaced at this week’s minicamp, Rice was working with the first team while McGahee ran with the second unit.

So, where does McGahee stand in the Ravens’ plans less than two months from the start of training camp?  It’s anyone’s guess, but the only thing he’s regained at this point is his familiar spot in the doghouse.

“I don’t know,” Harbaugh told reporters earlier this week. “I have no idea where he’s at. It’s the first day he’s been here in a week and a half. I can’t gauge it.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The only thing to expect from McGahee is unreliability.  Despite the Ravens making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid backs after signing him to a seven-year contract (the last two being option years) worth up to $40.2 million in 2007, the running back continues to show a lack of commitment in the offseason, one of the biggest knocks against him in Buffalo.

It’s not that McGahee doesn’t work hard during the season or is a bad teammate, but it’s clear he lacks the same dedication of his fellow Hurricanes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, workout warriors throughout the calendar year.  Even in his Pro Bowl season with the Ravens in 2007, his conditioning was a huge question mark, especially in the early stages of the season.

Those hoping to see a revitalized McGahee in 2009 are only going to be disappointed.  If he didn’t learn his lesson after last season—not to mention the horrific knee injury he suffered at the University of Miami in January 2003—he never will.

McGahee has the tools to be one of the best backs in the league and is still only 27 years old, but he doesn’t seem willing to put forth the work needed to be an elite runner.

Take him for what he is and nothing more:  a good—but could be great—running back with loads of talent—and not worth the generous contract the Ravens gave him.  In fact, if not for the $11.25 million hit that would have been charged against the salary cap, the Ravens could have explored trading McGahee to Arizona—who needed a running back—for receiver Anquan Boldin.

McGahee would easily be the primary option in the running game if he were in optimum condition, but instead, the Ravens are left with plenty of options in the backfield and no clear picture.

The Ravens appear committed to moving McClain back to fullback fulltime, especially after choosing not to re-sign veteran Lorenzo Neal (now with the Raiders).  Rice would be the next in line, but given his small stature, durability is the biggest concern with the second-year tailback.

Sixth-round pick Cedric Peerman is a promising back, but he will most likely be little more than a special teams contributor initially.

At this point, the “three-headed monster” appears to be a good bet to resurface in Baltimore this season, and it’s hard to argue with last season’s performance.  The combination of McClain, McGahee, and Rice provided quarterback Joe Flacco with the run-heavy offense needed in his first season.  It kept the pressure off the rookie and allowed him to grow into the offense.

The Ravens hope Flacco can open up the passing game in his second year, but there’s little doubt the offense will continue to be focused around the running game, as it should.

However, it would be nice to see where a fully-dedicated McGahee could take the running game—and the entire offense.  But then again, it’s the same statement uttered about McGahee numerous times since he entered the NFL.

Loads of talent, but much of it left untapped.