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Stepping back up

The Baltimore Sun

The Ravens' Willis McGahee and the Arizona Cardinals' Edgerrin James likely will have a brief reunion on the M&T; Bank Stadium field before Sunday's game, where the two former University of Miami running backs can catch up about playing for their second NFL teams.

They might even want to compare the chips on their respective shoulder pads.

McGahee, in his first season in Baltimore, is trying to put behind him a disappointing 2006 and a rancorous end to a roller-coaster four years with the Buffalo Bills.

James, in his second year with Arizona, is starting to show he was worth the four-year, $30 million investment the Cardinals made in a player who led the league in rushing his first two seasons and went to the Pro Bowl four times in seven years with the Indianapolis Colts.

Four years apart in school but often compared because of their accomplishments as Hurricanes, McGahee and James each took a step toward silencing their critics Sunday.

After being invisible during the preseason and overlooked in crucial moments of a season-opening loss in Cincinnati, McGahee rushed for 97 yards on 26 carries and caught his first career touchdown pass in a 20-13 win at home over the New York Jets.

"I have to prove myself," McGahee, 25, said last week after a practice at the team's Owings Mills facility. "I really don't have to do it, but I'm going to do it because of my boys [teammates], the city, and I really have to do it for myself."

This is nothing new for McGahee. One of the country's top college running backs as a redshirt sophomore, when he broke James' single-season school record for yards and touchdowns, McGahee tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee against Ohio State in the national championship game in January 2003.

"It is difficult, but you've got to overcome things like that, and that was my obstacle, my bump in the road to see if I could come back strong," said McGahee, who reportedly had taken out a $2.5 million insurance policy two weeks before that game. "It helped me out a whole lot being mentally strong."

Asked what he remembered about that night, McGahee said, "It's gone."

Drafted by the Bills with the 23rd overall pick a few months later, McGahee was back running within five months, back playing as a rookie in 2004 and seemingly on his way to a productive career in Buffalo before his numbers dropped from 1,247 yards in 2005 to 990 last season.

The bitterness with which he departed Buffalo is gone, McGahee said.

"That's all out of my mind," he said. "I'm not worried about what people are saying, anyway. People had their own opinion. They are going to say it regardless even if I do go on and have a good year. It'll be 'Can he do it again next year?' "

Some of those same questions were being asked last season about James.

After coming to the Cardinals - a move many questioned because of the team's weak offensive line - James rushed for only 1,159 yards and a career-low 3.4 yards a carry last season.

"It made me dig deeper," James, who turned 29 last month, told reporters during the Cardinals' training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., in late July. "Last year, there were so many opportunities to lay down and say, 'You know what? This is not what I came here for,' act up and not go out and play hard."

There were signs toward the end of last season that James was back on track. After three 100-yard performances (each in an Arizona victory) in the final five games, James rushed for 92 yards in a season-opening loss at San Francisco and then for 128 - his highest output since joining the Cardinals - in Sunday's 23-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

With a more balanced offense from new Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and a revamped offensive line - coached by former All-Pro Russ Grimm, who came with Whisenhunt from the Pittsburgh Steelers - the Cardinals appear to have figured out how to use James similarly to his role with the Colts.

"If I get 100 yards, we pretty much control the game and we are winning," said James, who had 49 100-yard games for Indianapolis, 43 of them in victories. "Look at the 100-yard games and the wins; it has a valid correlation."

James had physical obstacles, too, coming back from reconstructive knee surgery after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament six games into the 2001 season. Some doubts lingered when James rushed for only 989 yards and two touchdowns in 2002.

But over the next three seasons, playing for a team built around Peyton Manning's passing and Marvin Harrison's receiving, James rushed for more than 4,300 yards and scored 33 touchdowns. The Colts then passed again - not re-signing James in 2006.

With James struggling in Arizona, the Colts won the Super Bowl with a combination of rookie running back Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, who is now playing for the Oakland Raiders.

"I got what I wanted, and the Colts got what they wanted," James said recently. "It is business. It is football."

Former Hurricanes running backs coach Don Soldinger, who coached James and McGahee at Miami, recalled a conversation he had with James shortly after he signed with the Cardinals.

"I told him, 'You do what you've got to do, but I think that team is going to surprise people before it's over, with [quarterback Matt] Leinart and the receivers they have, and him and the running game," Soldinger said. "I told him not to look back on any move, that he's still one of the best to ever play the game."

Soldinger also said McGahee's relationship with Ravens running backs coach Tony Nathan will have a positive impact, as will the presence of fellow former Hurricanes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

"That matchup will be really, really good," said Soldinger, who briefly served on the same coaching staff as Nathan with the Miami Dolphins. "He [McGahee] needs someone that he has a lot of confidence and respect for. If he doesn't have the respect for you or he feels you're not giving him what he needs, he'll do his own deal, and that hurts him sometimes."

Soldinger said McGahee can be a little high-maintenance at times.

"Willis is a funny guy. You've got to kind of keep the pressure on," Soldinger said. "He doesn't slack off ever. Nobody has worked as hard as he has to get himself back [from injury]. But you talk about an alpha male. He's real stubborn about a lot of things."

McGahee readily acknowledges he and James are in different situations. Unlike James, McGahee is still looking for his first Pro Bowl selection. McGahee's performance in Buffalo was erratic - only twice in three years did he have consecutive 100-yard games.

Out of uniform after practice, sitting by his dressing stall, the proverbial chip is right there with McGahee.

"You've always got to have a chip in this game, no matter who it is," McGahee said. "I'm sure Edge has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to show them that he can be in position that he was in before [as one of the league's top backs]. That's how you've got to approach it."

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