Time to say it, Ravens: McClain is No. 1 back

The Baltimore Sun

The Ravens need to make it official. Willis McGahee should pass the baton to Le'Ron McClain as the team's starting running back.

The Ravens should still keep their three-headed-monster approach with McClain, McGahee and rookie Ray Rice, but it's time to make the move. It's time to hitch a ride on the team's biggest, best and most productive running back, and see if he can power the Ravens into the postseason, especially in the unpredictable December weather.

McGahee has been given every opportunity to remain the No. 1 running back. But there seems to be a black cloud hovering over him in 2008 after an outstanding season in 2007. By now, we've all heard the stories of his being out of shape in training camp and some internal matters that caused him to be banished to the bench this season.

But let's put those issues aside.

Most important, he can't stay healthy. He can't finish a game. It's not McGahee's fault. Injuries are injuries. But if it isn't a knee, then it's an ankle. If it isn't an ankle, it's a rib. If it ain't a rib, it's an eye.

If it ain't an eye, then it's his shoulder or his head. The guy is running out of body parts to get hurt.


Depending on the injury status of Rice and McGahee this week, the Ravens should use McGahee in spot appearances, allowing him to shake off the rust he has accumulated. If all three are healthy, then McClain should be the starter, Rice the third-down specialist and McGahee No. 3.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said yesterday that the team will continue to use a running back by committee, refusing to name a No. 1 running back.

"You guys [reporters] want us to name a starter and say he's our No. 1 back," Harbaugh said. "We just don't it that way. We've got three guys right now that are our guys."

It was extremely apparent Sunday night that McGahee isn't ready to play. He dropped a pass and fumbled twice. There wasn't much acceleration as McGahee had just 32 yards rushing on 11 carries.

When McGahee was helped from the field with 13:09 left in the game, that should have been where it clicked for coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

It's McClain's time now, and for the rest of 2008.

McClain delivered in crunch time against the Washington Redskins. With the Ravens ahead, 17-10, with 11:27 remaining in the game, they went on a 12-play, 83-yard scoring drive that was finished on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Derrick Mason.

Of the 12 plays, 10 were consecutive runs by McClain, who finished Sunday night with 61 yards rushing on 20 carries. In that one drive, he was the workhorse. That was smash-mouth football.

That's McClain.

"They couldn't stop me; that's my mentality," McClain said. "When I'm getting up, I'm telling them that I'm coming back."

McClain has a rhythm with the offensive line. There are times you question whether he knows all his plays and formations, but he has that rare combination of speed and power.

He can make plays off the edge or has the power to run inside. And like Rice, he has that good body lean that allows him to get that extra yard.

But McClain and fullback Lorenzo Neal also bring an excitement and confidence to the Ravens' huddle. You can see it as soon as they step on the field. Neal runs out looking like the Juggernaut character in X-Men. The offensive linemen start to stand straight up. Their chests start to swell. It's time to kick some butt.

The Ravens are going to need that now. It was brutally cold Sunday night, and it will probably be just as cold here Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers and two weeks later in the regular-season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Flacco didn't have one of his better nights against the Redskins. It was partly because of the windy conditions but also because Washington has great cornerbacks, and Flacco might have seen more zone coverage than he is used to facing.

No one can predict the weather here on the East Coast, but the best teams - the New England Patriots, New York Giants and the Ravens' championship team of 2000 - could run the ball. And it was usually power running.

It's time Harbaugh brought out the saddle and put it on his horse.

"When you got somebody at 260, gracious to Le'Ron who is more like 270, when you got somebody that big running downhill at you, you get tired of tackling him," Mason said.

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

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