ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Willis McGahee is still beating the odds as he approaches his 30th birthday.
The big, ninth-year tailback who’s known as much for overcoming injuries as he is for barreling through defenses has ascended to the top of Denver’s depth chart.
After serving as Ray Rice’s backup in Baltimore the last two seasons, McGahee signed a free agent contract in Denver in August because he wanted to be a part of coach John Fox’s blueprint and to reunite with running backs coach Eric Studesville, whom he worked with in Buffalo.
McGahee took advantage of oft-injured Knowshon Moreno’s hamstring injury in the opener to grab hold of the starting job and provide the Broncos with a toughness in the backfield that’s been largely absent since Peyton Hillis and Mike Shanahan were still together in Denver.
“It feels great. Coming here is a new beginning, a new life,” McGahee said. “My job is to take advantage of the opportunity that’s given to me, let nothing try to take it away from me, go out and do what I’ve got to do.”
Fox said McGahee has earned the right to get the bulk of the carries with two 100-yard performances over the last three games.
“We’re in a week-to-week, or a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ league, so right now, I think it’s fair to say that Willis is that guy,” Fox said. “I think his performance has kind of been the proof.”
McGahee ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries in Denver’s win over Cincinnati and gained 103 yards on 15 carries at Green Bay on Sunday for a 6.87-yard average. In between was a 52-yard day at Tennessee that included a touchdown.
Those are the kinds of performances McGahee used to have week in and week out early in his career.
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Drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Bills, McGahee sat out his first pro season while recovering from a serious knee injury that occurred in his final game at the University of Miami. He rushed for 1,128 yards in 2004 and backed that up with another 1,000-yard season, but the Bills traded him to Baltimore after he missed two games with a rib injury and was limited to 990 yards rushing in 2006.
McGahee gained a career-high 1,483 yards from scrimmage in his first season with the Ravens, then fell out of favor with a new coaching staff by occasionally skipping minicamp sessions and offseason workouts.
McGahee missed the 2008 opener while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, then battled eye, ankle and knee injuries while falling behind Le’Ron McClain on the depth chart. After making the Pro Bowl in his first season with Baltimore in 2007, McGahee’s numbers began to dwindle in John Harbaugh’s system.
He averaged just 8.6 carries over the next three seasons and last year he posted career lows in carries (100) and yards rushing (380).
With 259 yards so far this season, he’s on pace for his fourth 1,000-yard season of his career.
Rather than “I told you so,” McGahee is saying, “Thanks.”
He said his part-time role over the last three years in Baltimore actually helped him prolong his career and get one more crack at being a primary ball carrier in this league.
“I look at it as a plus that I only got 8 to 10 carries a game. It all worked its way out,” McGahee said. “Being a backup, I got to rest my body.”
Notes: The Broncos (1-3) have allowed 1,001 yards passing over the last three weeks, coinciding with Pro Bowl CB Champ Bailey’s absence with a pulled hamstring. That’s the second-worst stretch in team history, topped only by a 1,024-yard yield over Weeks 6-8 in 1964. Bailey said he’ll definitely play Sunday against San Diego (3-1) before the Broncos’ bye week.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)