McGahee needs to hit the ground running

The Baltimore Sun

CINCINNATI-- --This is a great time for a coming-out party. It's Marvin Lewis against Brian Billick. It's a nationally televised game on one of the NFL's biggest stages. It's a divisional game, and those are priceless.

So Willis McGahee, let's see what you've got.

All of Baltimore will be watching tonight as the former Buffalo Bills running back debuts for the Ravens against the Cincinnati Bengals. Maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal except that McGahee recently said he saved himself through the preseason for the regular season.

That's cool, and a lot of veterans do it. McGahee could be following the same script as defensive tackle Trevor Pryce a year ago, and then Pryce played at a Pro Bowl level from the opening whistle of the 2006 season.

"I'm ready to work now," McGahee said. "This is when it counts. In the preseason, you've got to get through it without getting hurt. That's over with now. Now it's all on the table; you've got to lay it all out."

The running game is the key to the season and how deep the Ravens will go in the playoffs. Last year the Ravens had the No. 25 rushing attack in the league and were ousted in the divisional round, 15-6, by the Indianapolis Colts.

Without a running game, the Ravens have no passing game because it's predicated on short, play-action passes. Without a running game, even the Ravens' top-ranked defense will get tired from staying on the field too long.

Pardon me if this sounds like a rerun, but that's why the Ravens signed McGahee to a $40 million contract during the offseason.

They want see McGahee run and run and run ...

"It's not about showing the country; it's about showing my teammates, just getting them behind you," McGahee said. "When you get them behind you, you don't have to worry about what other people think about you because people are going to have their own opinions. It's just showing my teammates I deserve to be here. I want to be here and I can make plays for them."

Maybe he can, but we didn't see any in the preseason. In four games, McGahee rushed 18 times for 47 yards, with 16 coming on one run against the Philadelphia Eagles in the opener.

There were times when the Ravens were holding McGahee back, but apparently there were times when McGahee was holding himself back.

"No, I don't feel like it was misleading," McGahee said. 'You don't want to go out there and show everything you've got. I'm not complaining about the situation. Like I said: It all starts [tonight]."

McGahee apparently had a plan, but he could have eased some concerns if he had showed something in the preseason. He could have whetted our appetites with a juke here or there. How about a little stutter step, head fake and then, boom, gone?

Instead, he has been a quiet storm. And with the offensive line struggling, it just makes every one worry a little more.

Publicly, the Ravens are putting on a happy face, and quarterback Steve McNair said he has great confidence in McGahee.

"In the preseason, you don't get that much timing down, especially as a running back," McNair said. "As a running back, you only play five or six snaps, and it's hard to get into that rhythm in the running game, but now's he's going to play the whole game. McGahee is going to be a big factor in the running game and help us out in the passing game."

That always has been the Ravens' plan. McGahee rushed for more than 1,100 yards during two of the final three seasons he spent in Buffalo. He had a career-low 990 yards last season, partly because of a contract dispute.

But the Ravens traded for him because he fit into the team's new offensive plans. The Ravens want to move away from being a run-oriented offense to one with more balance. They want more formations and to become less predictable.

Jamal Lewis ran inside the tackles. McGahee is supposed to attack the perimeter more and become more of a threat out of the backfield as a receiver. All of this is in the blueprints for 2007, but we haven't seen it yet.

Against a team like the Bengals that has such a high-powered offense, a game dominated by McGahee would be ideal. It also would serve notice to the league that the Ravens have a more diversified offense than in the past and are ready to take deeper steps into the playoffs.

Tonight could be a tone setter and a great time for McGahee to have a coming-out party.

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