CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Willis McGahee: The best running back in the NFL, as he declared himself last October? A stretch, to say the least.
Willis McGahee: The most important running back in the NFL? Now that he just might be.
"In our division, and where we play, we have to run the ball," new Buffalo coach Dick Jauron said after the Bills' preseason opener Saturday night here against the Panthers. "We're going to run it."
Frankly, the Bills don't have much of a choice. It's not like they're going to be great at throwing it. Last year the organization handed the quarterback job to J.P. Losman, but the 2004 first-round pick wasn't up to the task. The Bills were forced to start veteran Kelly Holcomb in eight games as the team finished 29th in passing. In the offseason, the Bills traded wide receiver Eric Moulds and signed career backup Craig Nall to "compete" for the QB job (Nall hasn't practiced all month because of a hamstring injury). That's all the moves of significance the Bills made to improve their talent at the skill positions on offense. Hard to imagine the passing game, or the rebuilding Bills in general (they were 5-11 last year) being much, if any, better in '06.
Which brings us back to McGahee. He's really all the Bills have on offense. (We'll find out whether Lee Evans is a true No. 1 wideout. The Bills believe he is, just without the flash. Oh, and the quarterback.) There isn't another back in the league who stands to be more of the focal point of his team's offense.
Maybe LaDainian Tomlinson, what with Philip Rivers' taking over in San Diego. But aha -- L.T.'s got Antonio Gates. Larry Johnson will be counted on to be a workhorse in Kansas City, but he, too, plays with a great tight end: Tony Gonzalez. Reuben Droughns has his work cut out for him in Cleveland with young Charlie Frye at QB, but Droughns still has help. Just about every running back, except McGahee, has going for him at least one if not more of the following: (a) a legit QB, (b) a proven threat in the passing game, or (c) a serviceable sidekick/backup. McGahee has none of the above.
Most counted-on back in the game. Definitely.
The good news (and listen up, fantasy owners) is that McGahee's now in an offense that will feature him more. For some reason he was underutilized by former head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Tom Clements. Last year, McGahee would watch third downs from the sideline, while Shaud Williams did his thing. McGahee wasn't properly utilized in the red zone either; the Bills often took to throwing it on those rare occasions that they actually approached the goal line.
"I wasn't part of the Mularkey package," McGahee has said.
That won't be the case with Jauron and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, the former Rams OC. McGahee is the package.
Fairchild brings with him elements of the Rams' scheme, which means more touches for McGahee in the passing game. In the two seasons (and 26 starts) since he came back from the knee injury he suffered in his last collegiate game, McGahee has but 50 receptions. This year McGahee won't come off the field unless necessary, and without a real threat opposite Evans, it's conceivable McGahee will match or even exceed that total.
Recall last year, when Mularkey criticized McGahee for not hitting holes hard enough. The old regime tried to make him a between-the-tackles runner. The new staff is encouraging McGahee to get outside more and use his speed. Down anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds to his college playing weight of 228, McGahee should have more than the four runs of 20 or more yards he ripped off last season.
That is, of course, if the Bills' revamped line can create some running room for him.
The Bills think their young right tackle, Jason Peters, a tight end in college, has the potential to be really good, perhaps even a Pro Bowler. He started the last nine games at that spot last year, when Mike Williams went down with an injury. (Funny how this game works: The Bills missed badly in picking Williams fourth overall, and the guy who's replacing him was undrafted.) Peters has everything, including quickness and good feet at 6-foot-4 and 328 pounds.
Honestly, Chris Villarrial is a JAG (Just A Guy). Free-agent pickup Melvin Fowler brings more athleticism to the center spot than Trey Teague did last year. But Fowler goes a shade under 300, so the Bills are going to have to give him help against the nose tackles they'll face in the AFC East (the Dolphins, Jets and Patriots all play a 3-4). Panthers castoff Tutan Reyes (28 starts the last two years in Carolina) is an upgrade over Bennie Anderson in terms of mobility at left guard. And Mike Gandy is OK at left tackle.
Behind the starters, the Bills have former first-round pick Aaron Gibson trying to come back after a year out of football. With an eye toward the future, the Bills probably should hold on to and develop '06 draft choices Brad Butler, Terrance Pennington and Aaron Merz as reserves.
Bottom line, the Bills' O-line is about a C, maybe a C-plus or B-minus on a good day. They're young. Hey, they are what they are, and they're all the Bills have at this point until general manager Marv Levy can infuse more talent. The group has to run block better than it did against Carolina's starters, when McGahee managed 5 yards on 3 attempts. And without a real passing game for opponents to honor, Buffalo is likely to see a lot of loaded fronts.
Our grade aside, McGahee likes his guys up front. The Bills also added former Redskin Robert Royal, who in his career hasn't been much of a receiving threat at tight end but is a pretty good run blocker and should make the strong side even stronger.
"We've got a lot of athleticism on the O-line this year," McGahee said. "Everybody's a lot faster than they were last year. Everybody's getting on their blocks. It's easier for the guys on the O-line to get out there quicker, get a hat on somebody."
The Bills might be able to hang their hat on their running game. Their formula is going to have to be as follows: Run it a lot, get a few first downs, punt the opposition deep in their territory, play defense, create field position for the offense. Score or repeat. That way they at least stay in games.
McGahee was the Larry Johnson of 2004 the way he wrecked shop the last three months of that season. He ran for more yards in '05 (1,247) but his average dipped from 4 yards per carry to 3.8 and his touchdowns from 13 to 5.
With what the Bills have (or rather don't have) at quarterback, McGahee will once again have a difficult time reaching his production level from two years ago. But be certain that the Bills are going to feed him the ball.
Maybe McGahee did eat his words: He enjoyed just one more 100-yard game after his infamous declaration. Popular opinion is that as talented as he is, he isn't even close to being the best back in the game. But he's definitely the Bills' bread and butter. Other than McGahee, you might say Buffalo is starving.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.