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OWINGS MILLS — Willis McGahee regarded the preseason mainly as something to survive, endure and tolerate.
The Baltimore Ravens’ newly-acquired franchise running back didn’t consider it to be a particularly important proving ground after signing a $40 million contract in the offseason after being acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills.
And McGahee’s minimalist approach, along with the coaching staff limiting his workload, didn’t translate into much production during four preseason games as he rushed for just 47 yards on 18 carries for an average of 2.6 yards.
"I’m ready to work now," McGahee said. "This is when it counts. Preseason, you’ve got to get through it without getting hurt. That’s over with now. Now, it’s all on the table. You’ve got to lay it all out."
Now, McGahee says he’s primed to run the football as he makes his regular-season debut with the Ravens during Monday night’s season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium and silence Buffalo critics who are already warming up their I-told-you-so columns.
For McGahee, who’s coming off a career-low 990-yard campaign where he was disgruntled about his unsettled contract, the Bills’ perennial losing record and the lack of glitzy nightlife in Buffalo, this is when he feels he’ll truly begin displaying his worth to his new teammates.
"It’s not about showing the country, it’s about showing my teammates, just getting them behind you," McGahee said. "When you get them behind you, you don’t have to worry what other people think about you because people are going to have their own opinions. It’s just the fact of showing my teammates I deserve to be here, I want to be here and I can make plays for them."
Reading too much into NFL preseason performances, whether it’s positive or negative, can lead to dangerously skewed evaluations.
In the case of this former Pro Bowl running back, it’s hard to tell whether he was merely protecting himself and holding back or struggling to hurdle a learning curve with his new team.
McGahee’s teammates appear to be convinced that his lackluster preseason was an aberration, not an accurate barometer of how he’ll perform this season.
"I know he’s going to do well," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I have no doubt that Willis will come out and perform well throughout the whole game. In the preseason, it’s kind of hard to get your motor going, especially if you’re only playing a few plays here and there.
"I think he’s going to do a tremendous job. I’m not holding my breath any. He’s a professional and he will come out and run the ball hard."
Added quarterback Steve McNair: "In the preseason, you don’t get that much timing down, especially as a running back. As a running back, you only play five or six snaps and it’s hard to get into that rhythm in the running game, but now he’s going to play the whole game. McGahee’s going to be a big factor in the running game and help us out in the passing game."
Excluding a 16-yard burst in a 29-3 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles to open the preseason, McGahee rushed for just 31 yards on 17 carries, an average of 1.82 yards.
McGahee insists that he’s not concerned about a slow August, especially in an era where several featured runners don’t even play in preseason games such as San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson.
â€œNo, I donâ€™t feel like it was misleading," McGahee said. "You donâ€™t want to go out there and show everything youâ€™ve got. Iâ€™m not complaining about that situation. Like I said, it all starts Monday.â€
For a Baltimore running game that dipped to 25th in the NFL last season, it’s imperative that McGahee expand their ground attack. The Ravens averaged just 102.3 yards per contest last season.
"We’ve got to get the running game cranked up," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We’ve seen enough of it in practice and there’s no reason we can’t run the ball well, but we’ve got to see it in a game."
Statistics aside, McGahee said he’s been focusing on growing accustomed to his offensive line’s blocking schemes, learning the playbook and picking up the nuances of pass protection to guard against blitzes.
The biggest thing the former University of Miami star is thinking about is not getting too amped up prior to this nationally-televised contest.
"I’m trying not to be too excited about it," McGahee said. "I’ve got to focus on what’s in front of me right now, and that’s practicing. I’m trying not to look forward to that big picture on Monday night."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.