Back in black

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

WESTMINSTER, Md. – It's 10:30 a.m. and feels about 1,000 degrees at Baltimore Ravens training camp. A visitor is waiting for running back Willis McGahee to run out of oxygen. Or words. Give him 15 minutes and he might use up both.

He's like a toy. Pull the string and wait for the batteries to run out … or for the Ravens' public relations staff to get nervous enough to take him away, which eventually they did. But it was a hell of a sermon up to that point.

"I feel like I've been set free," McGahee said.

"My problem was I just needed to get around some talent.

"Nothing against Buffalo, but you actually feel like you can win here.

"I think I owe Arizona a trip this February."

This is a happy, motivated McGahee, and while you get the feeling the Ravens don't want to leave him with a visiting journalist for too long, the franchise couldn't be more thrilled with his rejuvenation. Players and coaches hear his relentless chirping and take it as a good sign. The offense that had to stunt its growth to accommodate a diminishing Jamal Lewis last season suddenly has a versatile feature back that could change the complexion of the drab offense. And McGahee can't stop gabbing about how wonderful it feels.

"I think Willis is coming alive again," Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said. "He's feeling now what I was feeling last year. Just being comfortable, not only with the offense, but with the organization. The coaches take care of their guys here, and the players raise the expectations of each other on the field. I think he likes that."

McGahee will tell you as much. Although he's been asked to leave Buffalo behind, it doesn't take long for him to drift into comparing his new situation to the one he never felt comfortable in. And why not? Every practice, he looks across the line of scrimmage and sees the best defense he's ever partnered with. And it's not just his boys from the University of Miami, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. He sees a defensive unit that presents him with something he hasn't encountered in practice in a long time

A challenge.

"That's just it," McGahee said. "You better have an attitude here as an offensive player, because that defense is cocky. You've got to bring yourself to their level. They demand that from you. There's a lot of trash talking, and to be honest, I was a little surprised because the coaches don't say anything about it. You have to be man and step up to it. I got here, and I was like 'Whoa, it's like this? Ok, let's go.' "

That's precisely the mentality the Ravens were hoping for when they acquired McGahee for three draft choices and then lavished him with a six-year contract that could pay him over $40 million. The team's offseason goal was to add a running back with both the power to play between the tackles and the speed to get outside them. And perhaps most importantly, the team wanted a dynamic runner who didn't require a fullback, as Lewis often did last season. Once Buffalo put McGahee on the block, he became the natural choice to become the centerpiece of the Baltimore offense.

Heading into the first preseason game this weekend, that's what the Ravens think they've gotten. With McGahee, the offense is expected to become far more versatile. Gone are the days of pounding a fullback-guided Lewis into the guts of a defense 20 times a game. With McGahee, coach Brian Billick can move to a one-back set, which allows the Ravens to spend the majority of their snaps operating with two tight ends or three wide receivers.

That's no small wrinkle. Not when you consider the Ravens believe they have a wide receiver in Demetrius Williams that is ready to take a monumental leap forward. The scrapping of a fullback means Williams will see his playing time grow exponentially. In turn, it should help facilitate the growth of Mark Clayton, who coaches believe is ready to ascend to a legitimate No. 1.

"We've got five legitimate weapons on offense for Steve McNair," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Willis, Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams. We've never had that in Baltimore."

While the balance of the AFC's offensive universe has typically set its orbit around the likes of San Diego, Indianapolis and New England, Baltimore thinks this is the season where it opens some eyes. Beyond the development of the skill players and the scheme change, McNair enters 2007 with a full grasp of the offense. That's something the coaching staff admits wasn't there last season. Indeed, McNair admits that he was still absorbing the nuances of Billick's system in the playoffs. He says he finally achieved fluency this offseason.

"I was in my last system for 11 years," McNair said. "That switch made a difference. I was still adjusting to it right into the end of this offseason. People will notice the difference this year."

Particularly if McGahee can deliver. Critics in Buffalo say he never did, particularly last season, when some in the organization thought McGahee stopped caring. Even he admits that his motivation waned when it became apparent the Bills didn't have the talent to win on a weekly basis.

"When you've just got one talented person on offense, what do you think happens?" McGahee said. "Defenses end up keying on just one person. The defense doesn't worry much about anyone else. But if you've got a lot of talent on one side of the ball like we have here on offense, they have to respect a lot of different guys.

"I feel comfortable here. I wasn't comfortable where I was. You have a feeling when you're going to win. And you have a feeling when you're not going to win. When I played in Miami (in college), I knew that. I didn't feel that in Buffalo."

Now? McGahee feels it. And he can't stop talking about it. He's careful not to go too far, not that the coaching staff is losing much sleep over it.

"Willis is going to have to stand in a very long line behind people that are capable of saying some stupid things," Billick said. "I probably lead the line. We've got some guys that like to talk, and I probably lead that list."

But that perch will be tested. At one point Wednesday, a bystander asked McGahee, "Tell me something about this coming season that will blow my mind."

He smiled.

"They don't like for me to act all cocky, but …"

Just then, a Ravens PR flak bolted over to break up the interview and McGahee trotted away, but not before delivering one last message.

"Man," he said "I was about to give you something good, too!"

Be patient. It's a long season. And as McGahee can attest, there's still plenty of oxygen left.

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