Willis McGahee came to Baltimore four seasons ago with a ton of talent and a questionable attitude. As much as McGahee had quieted most of the concerns about a career-threatening knee injury sustained in his final college game at the University of Miami, he had raised others about his coachability during his four seasons in Buffalo.
The talent remains, but the attitude is no longer in question as McGahee, entering his eighth NFL season and admittedly in the best physical shape of his career, has matured into a more than capable role player for a team with legitimate hopes of making the Super Bowl. Which role McGahee plays this year — and whether it will be in Baltimore — is the only issue up for debate.
"I think some people think I'm getting old or I can't do certain things anymore, but I can play any role they want me to play," McGahee, who will turn 29 in October, said last week. "I can be the two-minute back, the red zone back, the third-down back or the every down back. When my number's called I can still step up to the plate."
His evolution as a Raven has seen McGahee go from making the Pro Bowl his first season despite former coach Brian Billick not always using him in goal line situations to becoming a backup to both Le'Ron McClain and Ray Rice as the team's red zone specialist under John Harbaugh to possibly sharing carries more equitably with Rice this season.
McGahee finished the 2009 season with career-lows for carries (109) and yards (554) but a career-best 5.1 yards a carry average and 12 rushing touchdowns, one shy of his career high. He showed flashes of the past toward the end of last season, when he rushed for a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns in Oakland.
As a result, Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery is hesitant to label McGahee as Rice's backup.
"We look at it as if we've got two good running backs, and Willis comes out here to practice every day as if he's the starting running back," Montgomery said. "It's not like there's a one and then there's a two… Willis is practicing every day as if he's the starter and not as a backup, and we as coaches see Willis as a starter and not as a backup."
McGahee is realistic enough to know that his increased role during training camp and the first preseason game as a pass catcher could simply be Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wanting to keep the 23-year-old Rice, who made the Pro Bowl in his second year in 2009, fresh and injury-free. It could also be the Ravens showcasing McGahee for a trade that could bring them a starting cornerback.
McGahee, who will $3.6 million this year, has no delusions about his place on the depth chart.
"If Ray's got the hot hand, he's going to be the [featured] back," McGahee said.
McGahee understands that other teams might still envision him carrying the load, and admits that "I treat every game as an audition." While he might be giving a prospective employer something to ponder, he is not politicking his way out of Baltimore.
"I'm not the type of person who's going to complain," said McGahee, who started the first preseason game against Carolina while Rice sat out and, like Rice, was used for a couple of series in the second exhibition game against Washington. "There's no need to pout about it. I feel like I like the situation here. I like the guys; I like the coaches. But I don't know any back in this league who doesn't want to be the featured back."
McGahee said that his reduced role in recent years "has added more years to my resume. As far as me not taking all the abuse and all the carries, it's helped my body. Nobody expected me to be here coming into my eighth year with the knee injury I had."
McGahee said that he is used to playing well when others doubted him, even dating back before he tore all the ligaments in his left knee in the Bowl Championship Series championship game against Ohio State.
"I've had my back against the wall for a long time," said McGahee, who first lost his starting job to McClain in 2008. "When I went to Miami, they said I couldn't become a starter. When I had the knee injury, they said I wouldn't play in the NFL. I kind of like having my back against the wall."
If McGahee has that proverbial chip on his shoulder pad, it was hardly discernable during the long, hot two-a-days that concluded last Thursday at McDaniel College in Westminster.
"Willis is a mentor to the young guys in a lot of ways," Montgomery said. "He's going to try to get them to relax a little bit, and he's going to joke around and kid around, but he's also one of those guys who's going to tease around with Coach Harbaugh and Coach Cameron and all of the other coaches. He is the wise guy of the group."
But, Montgomery added, "Willis is still learning a lot about football."
One thing McGahee has learned is how to take care of his body. He missed only one practice during training camp.