The 11th-year running back skipped each of the Broncos' 10 "voluntary" practices over the past month but showed up for the start of the team's three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday.
That left Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady, who's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and is angling for a big contract, as the only no-show on a team that exudes a Super Bowl-or-bust vibe.
With second-year pro Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball getting most of the work out of the backfield Tuesday morning, McGahee got only a few snaps in his first practice since suffering a right knee injury last November.
McGahee said he skipped the OTAs for family reasons and insisted that missing those workouts didn't put him in a bad spot by giving the youngsters a head start.
"I probably would have been behind the 8-ball either way," he suggested. "Younger group. Just being real, right?"
McGahee is pushing 32, he's coming off a significant knee injury that sidelined him for the final two months last season and he's set to make $2.5 million in 2013, which could prove a luxury expense if Hillman and Ball prove a worthy 1-2 punch.
"Yeah, probably would have been behind it anyway, but at the end of the day I'm going to go out there and be Willis McGahee. I can't worry about what other guys are doing. I mean, those other guys are very talented. I like them. I like the way they run," McGahee said. "I want runners to succeed because I ain't going to be here forever, you know, regardless of if it's next year, this year. I mean, somebody's got to be able to step up."
McGahee, whose 33 100-yard games are more than any active NFL running back, is part of a deep group of running backs that includes Ball and Hillman along with versatile fullback Jacob Hester and former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno.
"I plan on starting Sept. 5," McGahee said, flashing his you'd-better-believe-it grin.
McGahee, who became one of the NFL's most dependable runners despite tearing all the ligaments in his left knee during his last game in college, tore a ligament in his right knee in a game against San Diego last November -- when he was tackled low by Quentin Jammer, who's now his teammate -- and missed the rest of the year. Still, he led the team with 731 yards rushing.
Although he still had a limp, he would have been eligible to return to the field for the AFC championship had the Broncos not lost to Baltimore in the playoffs in a game in which they really could have used McGahee to salt away a lead late in the fourth quarter.
McGahee said he's 100 percent now and has no restrictions running, although what he did Tuesday was a lot of just standing around.
"I'm good. You know, I was just actually just seeing what was going on, seeing how things were operating out there," McGahee said. "I got a couple of plays in, but this afternoon I'm going to do a whole lot more."
He said he thinks he would have gotten more work Tuesday had he not skipped OTAs.
McGahee cited family reasons for his absence from OTAs, adding "I told the coach."
John Fox has steadfastly declined to criticize McGahee's absences during OTAs, noting they were technically voluntary workouts and suggesting he expected him to be on the field this week.
And he was, although mostly as a spectator.
McGahee said he didn't view his paucity of reps as anything more than it just being his first day back: "No. I didn't dig deep into it because I knew what it was, they told me."
It was this way last year, too, when he easily won the starting job during training camp after missing much of the OTAs and then showing up for the mandatory minicamp.
He faces a tougher task this summer.
Hillman has bulked up, has a year under his belt and is healthy after being bothered most of last season by a pulled hamstring that prevented him from pushing McGahee for more playing time.
And the Broncos have high expectations for Ball, who scored an NCAA record 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin and was a second-round pick.
McGahee said it doesn't bother him that the Broncos have used high draft picks on running backs the last two seasons.
"Nah. Me, I think I'm a different breed," he said. "I can block, I can run, I can get the tough yards. Everybody can't do that."
McGahee said he's always faced stiff competition in camp and "I'm going to always be on the bubble, so, there's not too much you can do. Like I said, it's a business, if something happens it happens."
McGahee figures he's been beating the odds for more than a decade now and has been written off as too old every year since 2006.
He figures he has plenty of football left to play, too.
"I got a lot. I mean, with the new (rules), how we do practice and stuff, it's totally different from when I first came in when we were hitting every day, two times a day," he said.
He's also not worried about being too expensive to keep around.
"As long as you can make plays, you're going to get paid regardless of wherever you're at. And I know I can make plays," he said.
McGahee has missed out on the tweaks offensive coordinator Adam Gase has made, particularly the pick-up-the-pace calls, not a small thing for an older running back coming off a significant knee injury.
"I think you'd like to have everybody here for all these practices and I think today was a good start," Peyton Manning said when asked about McGahee's long-awaited arrival.
Ball said he expects to benefit more from McGahee's arrival than his absence, vowing to pick up pointers by listening to the veteran and watching him work.
He's already made a big impression on the rookie.
"He's a lot bigger than I thought," Ball said, "and just from what I could see, he works hard."
RB coach Eric Studesville was on hand just a week after losing his parents in a motorcycle accident in the Texas Panhandle. ... With Clady out, LT Chris Clark was Manning's blindside protector again. "I think he will be here," Manning said when asked if he expects Clady to suit up come training camp next month. "We certainly hope that he'll be here. I know there's a business side of it. I've certainly kept in touch with Ryan (and know) that he wants to be here."