When Willis McGahee was cut by Baltimore this past summer, he was simply looking for a situation where he could contribute.
He found a perfect situation in Denver, where the Broncos were looking for a veteran complementary back. McGahee said in camp he was looking forward to a new start and he joked that he had so few carries in recent years that not only did he have plenty of tread on his tires as he neared his 30th birthday, he didn’t even need a "tire rotation."
Fast-forward five months later and McGahee -- who turned 30 in October -- has been the driving force in the Broncos’ surprising playoff push.
With quarterback Tim Tebow struggling to provide a consistent passing game in recent weeks, Denver’s primary chance to move the ball Sunday against visiting Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card matchup will be on the ground. Denver had the No. 1-ranked run game in the NFL this season.
It all starts with McGahee.
McGahee has been one of the best free-agent acquisitions in the NFL this year. He has easily been Denver’s MVP in a surprise turnaround season for the franchise. A first alternate to the Pro Bowl, he had 1,199 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. In 2010, he had 380 yards on 100 carries for the Ravens.
McGahee’s resurgence has been stunning. In the two previous seasons, he had a combined 209 carries for the Ravens. Usually, running backs slow down when they turn 30. McGahee has been revitalized.
McGahee has been the best running back in Denver since training camp started. He was signed to help 2009 first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno. However, McGahee performed better than Moreno from the start of camp and was soon the No. 1 back. And when Moreno was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Broncos didn’t look back.
It was McGahee who sparked the offense when Tebow took over. McGahee adjusted to the option offense with Tebow at quarterback and had seven 100-plus-yard games this season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, McGahee has been especially dominant up the middle. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry up the middle, which is the fourth-best average in the NFL. He converted 26 first downs and had five carries of 20-plus yards.
As part of Denver’s varied offense with Tebow running the show, McGahee also has been effective out of the shotgun formation. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he has the second-most rushing yards out of the shotgun this season with 388.
Expect the Broncos to force a heavy dose of McGahee against Pittsburgh in all running situations as they try to build a comfort level for Tebow and try to kill the clock.
McGahee’s teammates know what a key he has been and how important he will be against the Steelers. The nine-season veteran has earned his teammates' respect for being a grinder.
“He rarely gets tackled by one person,” Broncos tight end Dante Rosario said. “You always see his legs churning and he’s always trying to get that extra yard.”
McGahee has dealt with several nagging injuries this season. He did miss one game, but he has kept coming back for much more work than he was originally tabbed for this season.
“The guy works hard,” rookie tackle Orlando Franklin said. “He’s always here; he’s doing rehab all the time. He’s doing treatment. He’s always looking to get better, whether it’s in the ice tub, whether it’s watching film, whether it’s running extra gassers. He definitely works hard, and he proves it on the field. It’s definitely paying off for him.”
The Broncos’ top-ranked run game will face off against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense (and the No. 8-ranked run defense). Pittsburgh allowed an average of 99.8 yards per game. McGahee has often said he feels that he gets stronger as the game progresses. That will need to happen Sunday if the heavy-underdog Broncos (8-8) are to have a chance of beating the Steelers (12-4).
Broncos coach John Fox hopes McGahee can win a battle of attrition against the Steelers.
“There’s a wear-down effect on your opponent, as well,” Fox said of McGahee’s impact on opponents earlier in the season. “It’s like body blows in a heavyweight fight. They might take their toll, maybe not in the first five rounds but in the last five rounds. Part of that’s just a culmination of sticking to it and pounding it until you open it up.”
That has been the story of McGahee’s unexpected success all season.