Bills fans have been waiting three years to see running back Willis McGahee break a long touchdown run.
The wait ended Friday night against the Cincinnati Bengals when the trimmed-down McGahee scored on a dazzling 61-yard run in the first quarter.
McGahee took a toss pitch from quarterback J.P. Losman running left. After getting a great kick-out block from tackle Mike Gandy, McGahee cut back inside and was gone. He outraced the entire Bengals' defense, with cornerback Tory James in pursuit, to the end zone.
"It felt really good, man, like a monkey off my back," McGahee said. "I really didn't want my teammates riding me about getting out in the open and getting caught from behind, so it felt even better after that."
What really felt good was redeeming himself after fumbling on the previous series. McGahee was fighting for extra real estate at the end of a seven-yard run with Bengals defensive end Bryan Robison hanging onto his leg. That allowed cornerback Deltha O'Neal to come in and knock the ball loose. Safety Dexter Jackson scooped it up and went 72 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead in a sloppy game they would win 44-31.
"It was a good play," McGahee said of his turnover. "You've got to give him his credit."
There was no shortage of credit for McGahee after he wound up with 88 yards on just nine carries.
Four years removed from his devastating college knee injury at Miami, and 10 pounds lighter than a year ago, he seems poised to perhaps live up to his self billing as "best back in the NFL."
McGahee's speed in college was feared; he averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a sophomore. But the injury was a long road to travel back.
His longest run in two years starting for the Bills was 41 yards two years ago. Last season, his longest was 27 yards as he seemed to be missing that fifth gear.
"It's trying to come back," McGahee said of his breakaway speed. "There's plenty of more to come, to tell you the truth."
Unlike former head coach Mike Mularkey, who insisted McGahee pound the ball between the tackles, Buffalo's new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild wants to pop McGahee free around the edges. With plenty of off-tackle runs and toss pitches in the game plan, McGahee can then utilize his cut-back skills.
Fairchild also plans to throw the ball more to McGahee, whose receiving skills were also underutilized.
"We wanted to get him a number of carries and that's one of the things that went well, other than the fumble," Jauron said. "I was pretty happy with Willis and what he did."
McGahee, who had trouble keeping fluids down during the game, vomited on the sidelines and briefly left for the locker room but was fine afterwards.
--Bills owner Ralph Wilson will miss his first training camp since founding the Bills in 1960. Wilson is home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., getting treatment for a back problem. He had surgery nine years ago. Wilson wrenched his back playing tennis a few months ago and it hasn't gotten better. "I figured I've been to 46 camps, I can miss one," Wilson told the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle. "A lot of people come up with these bad backs and they can give you problems. Mine's been fine but it just came back up on me. If I were to come to camp, it would interrupt my physical therapy. All I can be is hopeful that it gets better." Wilson, 87, is updated daily from camp by GM Marv Levy or coach Dick Jauron. He's hoping he'll be able to continue to attend all of his team's regular-season games home and away.
--Buffalo's reshaped defense has had a roller-coaster start through two preseason games. In Friday's loss to Cincinnati, Bengals star receiver Chad Johnson toyed with the secondary, catching five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, and that's with Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer (knee) sitting out the game. The first-unit defense did start well, making three third-down stops on the first three series, including a sack by newcomer Larry Tripplett. "I feel our guys played hard," Tripplett said. "We still made a few mistakes but for the most part, guys were running to the ball, gang tackling, and whenever you have that we're going to have a lot of three-and-outs."
--Bills defensive assistant Chuck Lester is celebrating his 20th season with the Bills, tying him with former strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones for longest coaching tenure in club history. In the NFL, only five coaches have been with their teams longer. Lester, a one-time scout for the Kansas City Chiefs and linebackers coach at Nebraska under Barry Switzer, was hired by then Bills coach Marv Levy in 1987. Now Levy's back as GM. "If you have to move, you have to move, but I chose to take care of my family here," said Lester, who has worked for five Bills head coaches. "I promised my daughter she'd be able to graduate high school here and she will. My wife does a fantastic job with the kids and it's good for her. Career wise, who knows where I'd be right now, but I'm happy here and I love what I'm doing."
--Rookie DT Kyle Williams is shaping up as a fifth-round steal for the Bills. Williams, who had 176 tackles and 16.5 sacks at LSU where he anchored a nationally ranked defense, is logging regular time with the first unit. While Tim Anderson is still favored to win the job, Williams has already turned enough heads to assure himself a ton of playing time in Buffalo's rotation system. "When you look at the coaching staff, getting new players in, they haven't developed opinions and you've got a chance to compete for a job," said Williams, whose quickness makes him a good fit for Buffalo's one-gap scheme. "For a young guy, it's a really good situation. We have a long ways to go, but hopefully at the end of the season the coaching staff can sit back and say, 'We got a steal with this guy.' But these are baby steps right now for me."
--FS Ko Simpson, Buffalo's fourth-round pick, is also having a good camp. He's slated as the heir apparent to Troy Vincent. "Clearly we thought he was a good player, we drafted him and we thought he had a lot of upside," coach Dick Jauron said. "I don't want to say his ball skills are a surprise because it's not a surprise, but maybe the level of them. The degree is even better than we thought. Hopefully he's one of those players that when he gets a chance to make a play he makes it and that's what he's shown us. I think he's done a real nice job for us."
--When does WR Lee Evans want Buffalo's QB competition to end? "As soon as possible," he said. "The coaches know it and they're doing what they can do make the right decision. But the sooner the better it will be for our offense."
--Bills free agent OL Matt Morgan has developed a problem in his hip and visited with specialists in Pittsburgh last week. "I don't recall that he hurt it specifically, it's been over time," Jauron said.
Goodbye Manny Wright, hello Dan Wilkinson.
Dolphins coach Nick Saban said last week's signing of 13-year veteran "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson wasn't made because fellow defensive tackle Manny Wright had left the team. But it's fair to wonder whether the Dolphins would have needed to add Wilkinson had Wright lived up to the offseason expectations that surrounded him.
Miami thought Wright was ready to build upon the momentum the 2005 fifth-round supplemental draft pick generated at the end of his rookie season. After crying during a preseason practice when yelled at by Saban, Wright lost weight and showed promise when inserted in three late-season games.
Wright, though, allowed himself to get out of shape again in the offseason and reported to camp overweight. Wright then left the Dolphins after the first week of training camp and asked Saban for his release.
Agent Peter Schaffer said Wright's problems on and off the field are related to clinical depression. Wright has met with Saban and Schaffer said last Tuesday that "we've made a lot of positive steps" in trying to get his client back on the team.
But the next day, Saban strongly indicated reconciliation wasn't immediately in the offing.
Said Saban: "The assumption he is coming back because I met with him is completely wrong ... There's a lot of confidential issues that I'm not going to discuss that need to be resolved. Speculating like that, I just don't think it's fair to anybody."
So now, it's Wilkinson who will push starting interior linemen Keith Traylor and Vonnie Holliday for playing time instead of Wright. Wilkinson, 33, signed a three-year, $6.1 million contract with the Dolphins that included a $500,000 signing bonus and $810,000 base salary for 2006.
For that price, Wilkinson will be a steal if the top overall pick in the 1994 draft continues to play at the same high level he did in Detroit last season.
Wilkinson enjoyed an outstanding debut in last Saturday's 13-10 preseason victory over Detroit. Spelling starting NT Keith Traylor, Wilkinson had three tackles and 1.5 sacks in roughly 10 plays worth of action.
"I can definitely still come in here and dominate the line of scrimmage, no question," said Wilkinson, who listed Green Bay, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Oakland as other teams interested in his services following his May release from Detroit.
"That's always been my strength in my game and that will continue. I'm healthy and I'm strong. When I get on the field, that will carry over."
Known as a top run-stuffer, the addition of Wilkinson could lead to the Dolphins fielding one of the NFL's top short-yardage defenses. The Dolphins can now pair the 340-pound Wilkinson with the 340-pound Traylor as interior tackles.
"With him and (Traylor) in there ... I don't want to offend either one of them, but it's about 700 or 800 pounds of meat you've got sitting in the middle," Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. "I'm sure Zach's (Thomas) happy. It will help us as a team.
"Dan's a good player. He's still young enough (33) to do what he has done for a long time. We are fortunate to have him."
--The next time the Dolphins expected to see Junior Seau was five years from now in Canton, Ohio for his imminent Hall of Fame induction.
Instead, Miami will have a face-to-face encounter with Seau later this year after the linebacker ended a four-day retirement by signing with New England.
The Dolphins released Seau during the offseason, ending his three-year tenure with the team. Even though leg and pectoral injuries sidelined him for 17 of 32 games the past two seasons, Seau commanded so much respect in Miami's locker room that teammates voted him the franchise's leadership award winner for the 2003 and 2004 campaigns.
"He was always positive and optimistic and brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm," said Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas, who was a Seau fan while growing up. "He'd get here early in the morning before the rest of us for his workout and film study. He was professional in everything he did.
"That's why he was so great on the field -- because of all the work he did off it."
--The first question DT Dan Wilkinson was asked by Dolphins media after signing was how he acquired the moniker "Big Daddy."
"I can't shake that name," the 6-4, 340-pound Wilkinson said. "I've been carrying that since seventh grade. Most people just call me Dan or Daniel. That's fine with me."
--Thomas was happy to have the chance to spend some time in practice recently working with retired DE/OLB Kevin Greene, who was invited to training camp by Dolphins assistant Dom Capers.
"Capers brought him in here to teach the guys on this defensive scheme," Thomas said. "I saw him working with a lot of guys from Matt Roth to all of the defensive ends and edge rushers. He helped out even (linebacker) Donnie Spragan and a few other guys. I listened to him teach and that was impressive. He was second or third in total sacks all-time. You have to respect a guy to come down here and give his time and help out."
Thanks to a pair of exceptionally athletic former first-round picks taking the field together in Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, when healthy the Patriots arguably sport one of the deeper tight end groups in the NFL. And if training camp action 2006 is any indication, rookie third-round pick David Thomas may be ready to add another option to the versatile tight end mix this fall.
Thomas, the 86th player taken last April after closing out a stellar career at Texas with a national title, has shown nearly perfect hands in summer practice action. With Graham and Watson missing multiple practices at different times in camp, Thomas has had significant early opportunities to work on his pro game, spending plenty of practice time on the field with Tom Brady and the rest of the first unit offense.
"I have definitely had a lot of chances in camp and this is a good experience for me to be out here and taking a lot of reps," Thomas said following a recent practice. "I am just trying to work hard and do my best to try to learn the offense and get better every day."
Thomas' reps haven't been limited to just catching the ball, though, as he's been a consistent figure in both the passing and running games on offense as well as a familiar face on New England's various special teams units. The ability to consistently stay on the practice field while handling a variety of different roles has already impressed Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick.
"He really has a lot of things that he's doing," Belichick said. "He's involved in all of the phases of the kicking game. He's playing a couple of different positions offensively -- pass protection, run blocking, pass receiving, some plays kind of out of the backfield, some plays on the line of scrimmage. He's a pretty versatile guy and we'll see how all of that unfolds. But he can do a number of different things and I think that certainly adds to his value.
"Anytime a player has a lot of responsibilities, a lot of jobs like that, there is a lot technique, a lot of things to work on and that is the case for him. There are things that as he gets more experience with, hopefully he'll do better. But he is a smart kid. He works hard. He learns well. He doesn't make very many mistakes out there. He just doesn't have a lot of experience doing some of the things that we're doing. That's part of his growth."
As the rookie puts in the work this summer, including a solid performance in his first two preseason games, notching four receptions for 51 yards, the former Longhorn knows there is certainly a role to be earned in New England's many multiple tight end sets.
"It's exciting coming into an offense like that," Thomas. "You just have to know that they expect you to perform and be consistent. That's what I'm trying to do every day, is be better and be consistent."
As he works in that direction, focused on being an immediate option this fall, Thomas isn't taking his seemingly natural catching abilities for granted as he focuses on the many other aspects of his game that need to evolve -- especially his blocking.
"I think part of it is natural," Thomas said of his soft, consistent hands. "But part of it is hard work. You have to get on the Jugs. You have to catch a lot of balls. You can always get a little better at everything and that includes catching the ball. Blocking is something I need to work on, just like everything else. But with Pete (Mangurian), the tight ends coach, he's put an emphasis on it. As a tight end you have to be able to catch and block, you just have to keep working on it."
So far, Thomas has worked as hard as any player in training camp, combing his own work ethic with early and consistent opportunities. And with the questions surrounding New England's wide receiving corps, the rookie could very well help make the tight end spot an even more important part of Brady's passing attack than ever before.
--After having veteran Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski share the kicking reps in New England's preseason opener, the fourth-round pick out of Memphis got all the reps in the second week of preseason action against the Cardinals. Gostkowski was a perfect three for three on field goals against Arizona, hitting from 33 yards and twice from 37, while booming kickoffs near the goal line or beyond.
"This was a good chance for Stephen to just experience kind of the whole situation of the game in the NFL, kicking all the kicks and not just alternating like he did last week," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "But I thought overall it seemed like he did a pretty good job."
--There's little question the Patriots made a strong effort to bring Ty Law back to New England to solidify the team's secondary this summer. But it didn't happen. That's left guys like second-year starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs and fourth-year starter Asante Samuel to prove they can get the job done in the defensive backfield. And so far the preseason results have been positive.
Samuel has a pair of interceptions to show for limited playing time in the first two preseason contests. The confident Hobbs has also played relatively well with the first unit and says last Saturday night's game against the Cardinals and a receiving corps that includes a pair of 100-catch guys in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald was a good measuring stick for the team's secondary.
"We knew it was going to be a big test for us," Hobbs said after New England's 30-3 win. "Even Dean (Pees, Patriots defensive coordinator) said that going into the game, that we were going to find out what we were made of this week. I took it on as a personal goal to go out there and I said it during the week, if you want to test yourself you have to test yourself against the best. I felt like this is the best receiving corps that I've seen so far since I've been in the NFL one year. Best so far, hands down."
Hobbs and Co. held Boldin and Fitzgerald to a combined one catch in limited early game action.
--Former USC teammates Matt Cassel, vying for the right to back up Tom Brady, and newly signed Cardinals rookie Matt Leinart, once again found themselves competing head to head when they led their respective teams in the middle of New England's preseason home opener last Saturday night.
Cassel, who struggled at times during the preseason opener a week earlier in Atlanta, performed more consistently against the Cardinals. He led the Patriots to back-to-back scores in the third quarter, including a 9-yard touchdown to Heath Evans following a kick-coverage turnover late in the quarter. He finished the game completing 14-of-20 passes for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns for a 133.8 rating.
Leinart, who became the final first-rounder to sign earlier last week, entered the game with 1:09 left in the second quarter. The former Heisman Trophy winner led the visitors on a scoring drive to close out the half, scrambling and making accurate throws along the way. That was about the extent of his success on the night, though, as he finished the game completing just 4-of-11 passes for 45 yards while getting sacked twice, earning a 49.4 passer rating. The rookie was under a lot of pressure from the Patriots, and had to pull the down ball and scramble rather often.
Bill Belichick summed up the reunion battle, from a New England perspective, after the game.
"I like the quarterback we got from USC," Belichick said when asked to assess Leinart's play. "I thought he handled himself a lot better this week and he made a big improvement. I don't know, it looked like Leinart can run."
--Just a few days after Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that Tully Banta-Cain was having his best camp and "is pushing for playing time, pushing for a lot of playing time," the fourth-year outside linebacker had a productive evening against the Cardinals in New England's second preseason affair. Starting at right outside linebacker, Banta-Cain showed plenty of speed off the edge in recording a 9-yard sack of Kurt Warner early in the game. He continued to pressure Warner throughout his first-team action and finished tied for the team lead with three tackles.
Banta-Cain admitted with a smile after the game that he'd heard about the praise from his head coach.
"My fiance told me a little something about it," Banta-Cain said. "I just look at that as something that is just a credit to me being focused this year and really trying to take full advantage of the chances that I have been getting. And it's working out so far."
The former seventh-round pick, who established himself as one of the team's key special teams players over his first three seasons, hopes the opportunity created by the departure of Willie McGinest allows him to become a consistent contributor on the New England defense this season.
"I've always had confidence in my abilities and be able to showcase them this year has been what I've been all about going into the year and hopefully I'll get that chance," Banta-Cain said. "I am not where I need to be, but I think that I've made big strides and every week I am just trying to get better."
--The numbers certainly look impressive. One week after being stuffed for only 44 yards rushing on 16 carries in their preseason opener against Tampa Bay, the Jets broke loose for 216 yards on 41 attempts against Washington.
But take a closer look: 61 of those yards came on an electrifying reverse for a touchdown by rookie quarterback-turned-wide receiver Brad Smith, and another 23 came on a scramble by the Jets' most mobile quarterback, Brooks Bollinger. He had 35 yards on five carries.
While it may seem a bit unfair, if one takes away those yards, which certainly don't come in the normal flow of the running game, the stats would show 35 carries for 120 yards. That is better production than in the opener, but still not what coach Eric Mangini wants.
So that's why one day later, the Jets made their second trade for a running back in a span of seven days. After the ill-fated Derrick Strait-for-Lee Suggs deal, which was voided when Cleveland's Suggs failed his Jets physical the next day, New York dealt an undisclosed draft pick to the 49ers for sixth-year running back Kevan Barlow. Of course, the deal is contingent upon Barlow passing his physical. Perhaps Suggs can give him some pointers on what not to do.
Barlow, 27, averaged only 3.3 yards on 176 carries last season, but has a 4.1-yard average for his career.
There had been talk about Atlanta's T.J. Duckett, while Tennessee's disgruntled Chris Brown seemed to be a possibility. But now Barlow is on the spot. The Jets obviously hope that Barlow can recapture his 2003 form, when he rushed for 1,024 yards at 5.1 yards per carry.
In that game against Washington, fourth-round pick Leon Washington started at running back, but it was veteran Derrick Blaylock who got the bulk of the work with the first-team offense. He gained 46 yards on 10 carries and also got some notice from Mangini.
"He hit the hole more aggressively this week," Mangini said of Blaylock, who did some tough running between the tackles.
Cedric Houston gained 53 yards on 14 carries, but he was the third running back against the Redskins, and all of his yardage came versus Washington's
second- and third-teamers. Still, despite Blaylock's performance, the Jets aren't expected to call off their search for a featured back in the absence of 33-year-old Curtis Martin, who remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list with an injured knee after undergoing surgery last December.
Washington managed only 17 yards on six carries, but he showed his worth in another way as he returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to put the Jets ahead to stay. The Florida State product is listed at 5-feet-8 but admits to being 5-7, so he is likely too small to be an every down back anyway.
The 6-foot-1, 238-pound Barlow, who has rushed for 24 touchdowns, could be that guy. He has been an every-down back during his career, and used to be a productive one, until averaging 3.4 yards per attempt in 2004 and 3.3 yards last season. He will need to improve those numbers behind a young Jets offensive line.
--Cleveland RB Lee Suggs didn't appreciate his treatment by the Jets. When he returned to the Browns' training camp in Berea, Ohio on Wednesday, he told reporters he was "shocked" that he failed the Jets' physical, adding, "I feel as healthy as I have ever been."
Suggs also said he was told by one of the Jets' interns that he failed the test. "No coach told me, no GM told me," he said. A report out of Cleveland indicated the Jets were likely scared off by the fact that Suggs' knee was scoped in January.
--Coach Eric Mangini likes to use the carrot-on-a-stick approach when he can. On the second day of the June mini-camp, he ended practice by attempting to have a non-return specialist (DE Shaun Ellis) successfully field a Ben Graham punt. When Ellis did so, his teammates cheered and mobbed him and Mangini then applied a different schedule than he had intended, presumably an easier one.
To end the practice two days before the game against Washington, he looked for non-kickers to volunteer to make a 25-yard field goal. If one was made, Mangini would cancel that night's meetings. QB Kellen Clemens missed twice and SS Kerry Rhodes missed once, but the players asked for another chance-with actual K Mike Nugent trying once from 50 yards. He nailed it and the players had a night off.
--NT Grady Jackson worked out for the Jets on Wednesday but wasn't signed. Insiders indicated the 10-year veteran tipped the Jets' scales at 370 pounds, and the team didn't feel he could be effective playing at such a weight. The Jets are in the market at that position because DT Dewayne Robertson hasn't adjusted as they had hoped. In fact, against Washington, he started at DE and Kimo von Oelhoffen started at NT.
--Eric Mangini, the Bill Belichick disciple, hasn't let the Jets' media relations staff provide actual depth charts. All that has been available are alphabetical position rosters, with the alleged depth charts also listed alphabetically. However, NFL rules will prevent him from doing this once the preseason is over. For regular-season games, teams are required to provide legitimate depth charts.
Although the Browns' management was quite upset with the Jets' handling of the voided Lee Suggs trade, Mangini doesn't think it will affect his relationship with Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel, who was the Patriots' defensive coordinator when Mangini was secondary coach.
"He and I are great friends," Mangini said. "We'll talk a lot this year. We'll talk for years. There's never been awkwardness in our relationship."