This weekend, two mediocre teams from a mediocre state, which only gets media attention when presidential elections roll around (not like I can talk, being from Massachusetts and all) played a mediocre game that ended with a staggering score. The mediocre offenses of the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns scored a combined 68 points in the second half Sunday, with the Bengals’ 58 points topping the Browns’ 48. While it is a surreal experience writing any sentence containing the phrase “Bengals’ 58 points” and NFL.com described the game as what “everyone will be talking about Monday,” I’ve decided that it’s Tuesday and I don’t feel like talking about two mediocre teams who have a combined 8-14 record. Instead, I’m going to focus on a player who this season emerged from his long road to recovery just in time to establish himself as a top rookie in the league.
When Willis McGahee was in the 2003 NFL draft following his playing days at the University of Miami, McGahee was asked to describe in twenty words or less why a team should draft him. McGahee chose to use three when he replied, “Look at me.” The statement was almost too true to be considered bragging, except for one crucial fact: McGahee couldn’t play just yet and wouldn’t be able to for another year.
During his final game in Miami against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, McGahee injured, or rather destroyed, his left knee, practically inverting it by bending it backwards. The injury was so violent that when the cameras showed replays of it from different angles, there was one that actually showed McGahee’s knee snapping backwards the wrong way. All you could hear were gasps in the announcer’s booth. They immediately took the slow motion clip off the TV and you could totally imagine the AV guys looking at each other in shock as the camera angle played and realizing they weren’t HBO and so couldn’t play that sort of thing with a family audience viewing the game.
While sideline reporters were speculating all night that McGahee may never be able to play again, Miami went on to lose in heartbreaking fashion. Things looked bad all around for McGahee after what had been such a promising future only a few plays before. My friend Steve likes to call the ankle-dislocating injury former Pirates player Jason Kendall revieved while running into first base in 1999 the worst he’s ever seen. When Tedy Bruschi got contorted into a position that would end a season for anyone else other than Gumby or Bruschi in the Pats game a few weeks ago and they showed the replay that gave everyone in the room phantom pains, Steve compared it to watching Kendall’s ankle injury. I didn’t see Kendall’s disaster, so McGahee’s knee is what I use as my how-disgusting-was-that point of reference for sports-injury replays. Yet even after attaining that impressive honor in my book, McGahee was still confident as ever.
He remained confident when, in the beginning of this year, rookie Buffalo Bills coach Mike Mularkey decided to make veteran Travis Henry the starting running back (I’m so tempted to put in a “now that’s a load of malarkey” crack in here, but to retain my dignity, I’ll resist). McGahee, no stranger to confidence, knew he was the better running back and he let everyone else who was willing to listen know it too. But he was also patient and realized he’d get his chance. His chance to start came in Week Six against the Miami Dolphins when Henry was out with a sprained ankle. McGahee rushed for 111 yards and the Bills snapped a five-game losing streak, beating the Dolphins 20-13. The Bills have gone 5-2 since McGahee took over the starting running back position and several times have done what they failed to do before Week Six — score at least 20 points and win a game. McGahee’s seven touchdowns have certainly helped this statistic and has him ranked 18th in the NFL for touchdowns scored. Seven touchdowns in twelve games — that’s passable, but seven touchdowns in seven games for a rookie? For McGahee, that’s just getting the job done.
This weekend was a particular milestone for McGahee. The Bills triumphed over the Seattle Seahawks in convincing fashion, winning 38-9. Thirty-five of those points came from five touchdowns – McGahee scored four of them, including a 30-yard run in the beginning of the fourth quarter. From a rookie who wasn’t slated to start at the beginning of the season? That’s more than just getting the job done, that’s carrying the team.
There have been rumors Buffalo is planning on trading one of their running backs next season. With an ailing quarterback who, unlike wine and cheese, just keeps getting exponentially worse with age and whose sole touchdown pass of the game was for fewer yards than McGahee averaged on touchdown runs, it would be foolish for Buffalo to trade away McGahee. While it’s understandable why Mularkey chose Henry as the starting running back (the guy HAD averaged 1,300 rushing yards in the previous two seasons), to get rid of McGahee now would simply be, and I apologize in advance, a load of malarkey.