McGahee: 'Vibe is totally different'

OWINGS MILLS -- The dark visor affixed to his helmet hides his eyes and facial expressions, keeping out both the gleaming sunlight and the outside world from peering inside. Willis McGahee bolts upfield with the football tucked tightly into his arm at a June minicamp, extending his knees high as his chiseled body seems to glide across the manicured grass.

There's a pair of tattoos decorating his thick right forearm, grinning, classic theater masks that almost seems to mock the defenders chasing him. Intricate, cursive letters on his neck signal a bold announcement that reads: Guess Who's Back.

He unbuckles his helmet on the sidelines, revealing a mischievous smile as he guffaws a loud burst of laughter. He's back to cracking inside jokes with safety Ed Reed, his old friend from the University of Miami.

Wearing new colors, the purple emblem of the Baltimore Ravens, appears to suit McGahee just fine.

This is a fresh start for him. This isn't the Buffalo Bills' losing environment where McGahee had become a noisy malcontent eager to leave town.

"Oh man, the vibe in the air is totally different," McGahee said in an interview this spring. "These guys know what they want and the coaches treat you like men. Everybody is making sure everybody is on top of their game.

''Perfect scenario, perfect situation, perfect team. It doesn't get any better than this. When I got here, at first I was little nervous. But it's all love right now.''

McGahee is the Ravens' new $40 million man, the former Pro Bowl running back they traded three draft picks to obtain and signed to a six-year contract.

He's the man they felt confident enough in to dump former NFL Offensive Player of the Year Jamal Lewis amidst his rapidly declining production.

Now, the Ravens want to see a significant return on their investment. They want McGahee to resurrect a dormant running game that dipped to 25th in the NFL last season.

"He does a lot of things," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's going to give us a lot of versatility in our running game that maybe we haven't had the last few years. He's very multiple, both as an inside and outside runner.

"He's very good out of the backfield. We think our talent at tight end and receiver match up better with Willis' style and what you do with a Willis McGahee than with what we've had in years past. So, it looks pretty good right now."

So far, it's been a relative honeymoon for McGahee and the Ravens.

There's no controversy, no headlines spawned from his complaints about nightlife and dining venues. He hasn't offered any suggestions about moving the team to another city as he did in a Penthouse interview where he said he would be fine with moving Buffalo's civic treasure, its football team, to Toronto.

It's been all about football, about how inserting McGahee into the Ravens' offense could create new schemes, more breakaway runs and some breathing room for quarterback Steve McNair and his receiving corps to operate.

McGahee's swagger seems to fit the defending AFC North champions like a glove.

"There's a certain attitude that you have to have on the offensive side of the football," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a fellow Miami football alum. "The same attitude we have on defense, he has on offense. It's just a swagger that he has and his energy towards the game."

Where Jamal Lewis could be relatively quiet and softspoken, McGahee tends to be more flamboyant and outspoken.

Lewis' running style was built on pure power and brute strength, overpowering linebackers with his strength and surprising defensive backs with his speed.

McGahee is two years younger than Lewis and is regarded as more of an all-around back with superior pass-catching skills.

"He's a hard runner," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said of McGahee. "I was a big fan when I heard we got him. I can't wait to see him in action in that purple.

"He has that black visor like the rest of the defense. He has that Miami swagger because you know we could use a little bit of that. It's good to have a guy who's so sure of himself, in what he can bring to the table on and off the field."

However, McGahee's production wasn't better than Lewis a year ago as he skidded to a career-low 990 yards and six touchdowns as he gained less than 1,000 yards for the first time in his five years in the NFL.

McGahee gained 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns in Buffalo, including a career-high of 1,247 yards in 2005. He caught 68 career passes for 550 yards, sitting out his rookie year while recuperating from a gruesome knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

And while he rushed for 13 touchdowns in 2004, he combined for only 11 during the next two seasons. Only four of his runs went for 20 yards or more last season.

"My situation wasn't that great in Buffalo," McGahee said. "I thank God for getting the 990, to tell you the truth. If you look at it, I missed two games and was facing nine guys in the box a lot. If you get to a better team with receivers, a quarterback, a line helping out, it's going to be hard to stop everybody."

The Ravens remain convinced that McGahee represents the answer to their running game problem.

"Willis is awesome," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "I'm excited. He obviously has the breakaway speed and he's very agile.

"He makes people miss. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. So, he's going to add another dimension to our offense, which is exciting." Offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel is plotting game plans to utilize McGahee's strengths, which center around his vision and ability to catch the football out of the backfield.

The Ravens plan to use more zone-blocking schemes to afford McGahee more choices on where to run. There will be more sweeps, traps and pulling. There's rumors about a few screen passes being in the offing, too.

The one-back offense appears to be in vogue now in Baltimore after years of the traditional I-formation.

"Jamal loved running behind a fullback," Neuheisel said. "With McGahee, we're more one-back. That's his style. He's more of a draw and outside zone runner and is able to use his speed. Our personnel will adapt to the style of the runner."

McGahee is listed on the roster at 6-foot, 228 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter than Lewis. Although smaller than Lewis, McGahee has deceptive power and always seems to be running behind his shoulder pads.

"He doesn't look that big or that strong like a bruiser," defensive end Trevor Pryce acknowledged. "But some guys are just compact. He's kind of like a bowling ball."

While the Bills griped about McGahee's tendency to retreat to South Florida to train in the offseason, the Ravens have been impressed so far with his work ethic and dedication.

"He's come in here early, he's been busting his butt to learn our system," offensive guard Jason Brown said. "In return, we've been displaying a lot of confidence in him. We need him.

"It's imperative that we have a good running game. That's why we're working so hard. We want to wear down the defense. They'll get tired and he'll start breaking tackles and scoring touchdowns."

So far, there haven't been any growing pains for McGahee, whose locker stall is next to Reed's, in Baltimore and he seems to be fitting in.

There also hasn't been any real stress, though, the kind that usually crops up during the regular season.

"It's all about respect," McGahee said. "I don't want to rub elbows the wrong way."

A perennial top 10 rushing team, Baltimore averaged just 102.3 rushing yards per contest last season as Lewis gained 1,132 yards and averaged only 3.6 yards per carry.

The Ravens hope that McGahee will represent enough of a running threat that teams won't be able to lock down the receivers outside. "That's the whole point of the running game," tight end Todd Heap said. "You've got to make that work. I don't think there have been any teams that don't run the ball that win the Super Bowl.

"I expect Willis to have a huge year. When that happens, it will be a big year for all of us as well."

Still, Buffalo discarded McGahee without much of a fight. The Bills traded him for a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick in this year's draft and the Ravens' 2008 third-rounder. Between a trio of paternity suits, his disgruntled attitude about the Bills' refusal to grant him a contract extension and loud whispers from assistant coaches about his lack of knowledge of the playbook, McGahee and Buffalo don't seem to miss each other at all.

There's even an anti-McGahee Web site devoted to bashing him. He seems destined for a barrage of boos and unpleasantries when he heads back to town for the first time on Oct. 21. Especially after he criticized the slow pace of upstate New York shortly after the trade.

"No, I don't have nothing to prove to Buffalo," McGahee said. "It was fun while I was there, but that's in the past now."

Pressed on whether his time in Buffalo was truly enjoyable, McGahee hedged a bit.

"When I first started out, you know what I mean," he said. "I'm on a new team. I've got bigger and better things to worry about." McGahee declined a financial offer from cornerback Chris McAlister to sell him his No. 21 jersey, which was the number he donned for the Bills.

Instead, he's embracing No. 23, which happens to be the same position he was selected in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft.

"I don't want 21," McGahee said. "I'm looking for a fresh start."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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