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OWINGS MILLS — Willis McGahee burst outside, accelerating away from defenders who chased him in vain up the right sideline. They got an excellent view of the back of his No. 23 jersey.
The former Pro Bowl running back’s 33-yard sprint to the end zone generated the Baltimore Ravens’ lone touchdown in a 38-7 loss Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers that ranks as the second-worst loss in franchise history and severely damaged the reigning AFC North champions’ playoff outlook.
However, McGahee’s individual success reflects a microcosm of what has transpired offensively for the Ravens (4-4) for the majority of the season as they prepare for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Although McGahee ranks fifth in the league in rushing yards with 689 yards and is averaging 86.1 per contest, his steady production and above-average work as a receiver out of the backfield and in pass-blocking haven’t transformed a stagnant offense into a dynamic one.
After being acquired in an offseason trade from the Buffalo Bills for three draft picks and signed to a $40.12 million contract to replace Jamal Lewis as the centerpiece of the Ravens’ offense, McGahee’s arrival hasn’t had a game-changing impact at this point despite eclipsing the century mark twice and rushing for 97 and 98 yards in two other games.
"I’m really not trying to enjoy my year, I’m not where I want to be and the team basically isn’t where we want to be," said McGahee, who has recovered from a mild concussion suffered against the Steelers. "I’m not where I want to be right now."
There’s no denying McGahee’s reliability for the most part.
Although he fumbled against the Steelers when safety Troy Polamalu ripped the football out of his hands, McGahee wound up rushing for 50 yards on 12 carries against the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
Still, it wasn’t nearly enough to counteract the problems experienced by quarterback Steve McNair, who fumbled twice and was intercepted once.
"No doubt about it, we’ve got to give Steve the support," McGahee said. "I missed a block in the game, I fumbled. Those are two setbacks. He needs a supporting cast like everybody else needs a supporting cast.
"We’re better than what we’ve been putting out, from what we’ve been doing during training camp. We’ve got the potential, but we’re not following through. It’s everybody. We’ve got to be on the same page."
McGahee is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and ranks second on the team with 27 receptions for 165 yards and one touchdown catch.
When asked if McGahee’s success has been lost somewhat in the midst of the Ravens’ disappointing season, Ravens coach Brian Billick replied: "Probably, probably. I think he’s playing very well."
There’s a strong sense around the team that the Ravens are only scratching the surface of McGahee’s potential.
He has 158 carries, but is often taken out of the game just as he’s beginning to build some positive momentum. Stamina was an issue against the Bills as he needed an IV to replenish fluids following a 46-yard touchdown run.
Overall, the Ravens have no complaints about McGahee. They just wish they were making better use of his diverse abilities.
"He’s complete," Billick said. "He’s a good pass receiver. I hope to get more of that. He’s an excellent pass protector as well. So, he’s a very complete guy."
McGahee remains a guy with serious designs on climbing the NFL statistical charts even if it looks like a foregone conclusion that Minnesota Vikings superstar rookie Adrian Peterson will wind up being the league rushing champion.
Peterson has rushed for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns, ranking ahead of the Indianapolis Colts’ Joseph Addai (804 yards, seven touchdowns), the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Willie Parker (768 yards, two touchdowns), the Bills’ Marshawn Lynch (690 yards, five touchdowns) and McGahee.
McGahee is on pace for 1,378 yards, which would be the second-highest total in team history.
"Oh, I would love to be No. 1," McGahee said. "That’s always my goal. That guy in the No. 1 spot, he’s at 1,000 yards already. It’s ridiculous."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.