OWINGS MILLS — Willis McGahee has definitely changed his ways, and his transformed attitude has triggered increased playing time for him one year after being relegated to the bench due to a combination of injury and attitude problems.
Following a culture clash between the former Pro Bowl running back and the Baltimore Ravens’ coaching staff last year when he reported out of shape and griped about his reduced role, McGahee arrived at training camp this year in optimal condition ready to work.
What kind of lessons did McGahee learn from last year’s dismal personal season?
"Basically, don’t come in with a hard head," McGahee said Monday, one day after rushing for a game-high 79 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries during a victory over the San Diego Chargers. "That’s about it. Don’t do that. .. It feels pretty good.
“You know, last year was difficult. I think I was losing hair last year worrying about what was going on. Right now, no worries. It’s all about having fun and staying healthy, and that’s what we’re doing right now."
When asked if he came to the realization that he needed to change his approach on his own or whether he was given some advice, McGahee smiled.
"I knew that, then you had some people saying things like that," he said. "So, it wasn’t a no-brainer."
Although McGahee is no longer a starter as he’s been installed as Ray Rice’s primary backup, he’s tied for the NFL lead in total touchdowns with four scores with Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore.
That includes three touchdown runs and one touchdown catch for McGahee on just 31 touches.
Last season, McGahee gained a career-low 671 yards as he shared playing time with Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain and Rice while also dealing with knee, rib, ankle and eye injuries.
While the Ravens have maintained their committee approach in the backfield, McGahee is emerging as a vital part of the equation again.
After drawing criticism from the coaching staff last season for his work ethic, McGahee reported at a much lighter playing weight and appears to be leaner and quicker. For McGahee, it’s a fresh start with Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"The difference is when you’ve got a new head coach coming in, you don’t know what to expect," McGahee said. "Sometimes, things tend to go a different route. They want you to come in at this weight, where they think you’re good at.
"When you’ve got another year, you know what to expect from him. So, you try not to make those same mistakes you made that first year."
Through two games, McGahee has rushed for 123 yards on 25 carries for a 4.9 yard average. He’s second on the team in rushing behind Rice, who has gained 144 yards on 27 carries with no touchdowns.
And McGahee has caught six passes for 41 yards and one touchdown.
With his steady red-zone workload and the Ravens’ undefeated record atop the AFC North, McGahee is a happy man.
"Oh, I’m good," he said. "No worries on this end. I haven’t had any negative things in the paper yet. So, actually, I’m pretty good."
The improvement in how McGahee has interacted with the coaches has dovetailed with him increasing his workload in practice after skipping the majority of the minicamps and the offseason training program last year.
“I think Willis has done a great job of getting himself ready to play this year," Harbaugh said. "Willis has had a really good camp. I think he had a reasonably good offseason. It could always have been better. He’ll be the first to tell you that.
"When he came to camp in shape and was able to work through training camp, I don’t think he missed a practice during training camp, he told me this was the best training camp he’s had in his whole pro career. And it’s shown up in the way he’s running. It’s been a real plus for us.”
By his own admission, McGahee was consumed in the past with how he ranked statistically against the other top runners in the NFL.
He regularly used to boast that he was the best running back in the league, a statement not backed up by his statistics.
Now, McGahee seems to be devoting his energies to helping his team win.
"Stats versus six points? If you would have asked me that a couple of years ago, I would be all for stats, but I’m going for six points right now," he said. "You can’t worry about stats because sometimes you might just have a 36-yard game and it is what it is. When you get the touchdowns, it overlooks the stats.”
During the offseason, McGahee was the subject of speculation that he might be on the chopping block because of his seven-year, $40.12 million contract that expires after the 2013 season.
McGahee has a $6.35 million salary-cap figure this year that includes his $3.6 million base salary. The acceleration from the prorated portion of his $15 million in guaranteed money would have been far too expensive to cut him.
His remaining base salaries are $6 million in 2011, $6.5 million in 2012 and $7.2 million in 2013.
As far as McGahee is concerned, he’s not planning on going anywhere.
"To tell you the truth, I really haven’t been keeping up with the contract," McGahee said. "But I have had some people come up to me off the streets saying, ‘I know it’s your contract year.’
“I’m sitting there looking like, ‘How do they know all this?’ I haven’t worried about the contract year. As far as I know, I’ve got a couple more years left on it.”