A run committee right step forward

The Baltimore Sun

The more it keeps popping up, the better it seems. The Ravens' running back-by-committee approach is appealing and should be effective.

Some NFL coaches and starting running backs don't like it. Most prefer to have a featured runner and a solid No. 2. These days, a team can't function without having two top running backs.

But the Ravens are apparently going with three in Willis McGahee, the starter a year ago, along with rookie Ray Rice and second-year fullback Le'Ron McClain.

Who will be the starter tomorrow against the Cleveland Browns? We assume it's Rice, but it's going to be like opening an old box of Cracker Jack. We all might be surprised by the rotation.

But it would have been a mistake to make McGahee the starter as soon as he recovered from his knee injury. By now, we all know he missed several of the minicamps during the offseason and fell behind in learning the offense.

He reportedly came to training camp out of shape, and then within the first week, he started having knee problems that eventually led to his having arthroscopic knee surgery. McGahee missed most of the preseason and didn't practice again until the week leading up to the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

McGahee dressed for the game, but he didn't play. Good move. I'm not sure whether new coach John Harbaugh was trying to send a message, but if McGahee had played, it would have sent the wrong one.

One of the biggest concerns for the Ravens heading into the season was McGahee - and whether he would push himself because he didn't have competition. Well, they no longer have to worry about that.

McGahee has Rice on one side and McClain on the other. Those two youngsters have played well through the preseason and into the first game. And if Harbaugh had put them on the bench to start the season, it might have shaken their confidence as well as that of some of the veterans who have worked hard for him since he became coach.

But instead, it seems to have worked out well, at least for now. McGahee hasn't griped, and he didn't complain last year when he thought he should have carried the ball more. Maybe his knee is still not 100 percent, or maybe he wants to keep himself fresh for the long haul of a season.

Honestly, this group, along with fullback Lorenzo Neal, gets along well. They have a good coach in Wilbert Montgomery, who is refreshingly honest when evaluating them.

In training camp, they all talked about how well they could jell, and how they could have a dominating running game. Depending on how fast the offensive line develops, that could be true.

In McGahee, the Ravens have a slasher and cutback rusher who ran for 1,207 yards a year ago. By the end of last season, McGahee had become a better receiver out of the backfield.

In Rice, they might have their running back of the future. He is still slow to find holes, but he has gotten better quickly. Rice has deceptive power and is much stronger than he looks.

McClain is a power runner. He'll occasionally fool you with a fake or a stutter step, but he is a bruiser who likes to run through people. And when he runs behind Neal, it's impressive and imposing.

The running game worked well two weeks ago against the Bengals as the Ravens rushed for 229 yards on 46 carries. McClain had 86 yards, and Rice ran for 64.

Cleveland will be much stronger test tomorrow with nose guard Shaun Rogers and end Corey Williams. But the Ravens will add McGahee to the mix, and it could make for good chemistry because the styles of the three runners complement each other.

The approach is somewhat unorthodox, but of the three runners, only McClain has the body to carry the ball about 25 to 30 times a game.

With a young offensive line and a rookie quarterback, the Ravens need a system like this in place. They're going to have to pound the ball each week. They have three pairs of legs that can absorb the punishment, but those legs might be fresher than many others come December.

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 to 6 p.m on Fox Sports 1370 AM.

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