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Ravens, Cameron have big plans for McGahee in 2008

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens might not know the identity of their starting quarterback, but they do know who they expect to carry the bulk of their offensive load.

Willis McGahee has demonstrated the capacity to do exactly that during his five NFL seasons.

In 2007, his first year with the Ravens, he was an alternate selection to the Pro Bowl after finishing fourth in the AFC in rushing with 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns. And McGahee is expected to be asked to do even more this year, given that the Ravens' No. 1 quarterback will either be a rookie (Joe Flacco), a second-year pro with only two starts (Troy Smith), or a sixth-year veteran who has yet to establish himself (Kyle Boller).

"I'm looking forward to that challenge," McGahee said during the Ravens' recent mandatory minicamp. "Actually, this is a year I'm really excited about. Out of all my years playing football, I'm (most) excited about this year."

He should be.

Cam Cameron, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, is installing a scheme that will call for McGahee to have the ball in his hands plenty of times as a runner and a receiver. Cameron has the same plans for McGahee that he used so successfully with LaDainian Tomlinson when Cameron ran the San Diego Chargers' offense.

It is not a stretch to see a highly productive McGahee easing the burden on Flacco, Smith, or Boller the way Tomlinson has during Philip Rivers' first two seasons as the Chargers' starter in 2006 and 2007.

"I'm excited about him, I can tell you that," Cameron said of McGahee. "Last year was the first time I had seen him in person playing. I didn't know he was that big (6-foot, 232 pounds). He's big and physical. I think he's just scratching the surface of what he can be, based on what I've seen."

McGahee couldn't agree more.

He arrived in Baltimore last season with the intention of being a major contributor. For the most part, he achieved that, despite missing the season finale with broken ribs. Now he is prepared to be a large part of the Ravens' efforts to rebound from the bitter disappointment of a 5-11 record.

"The main thing was to come here to try to help the team, be that back that they wanted me to be," McGahee said. "I did accomplish a couple of things when I got here. One of my goals was to go to the Pro Bowl. That's still part of my goals, to go to the Pro Bowl, but be a certified pick-in. I was an alternate last year. I want to be guaranteed, so that's the goal this year."

The Ravens' new offensive approach should do plenty to help make that a reality.

"Sometimes you can say, 'I want to throw to set up the run,'" Cameron said. "Well, we're going to run to set up the passing game. That's our starting point. That's kind of my history. It just gives you a foundation to build from.

"You want to help a young quarterback? A running game helps tremendously. I don't think there are any quarterbacks that are just carrying teams. Defenses are too good for that. You look at the quarterbacks that are playing well, they've got talent around them.

"But you can't just figure you're going to hand it to (the running backs) all the time. You want to get them the ball in a variety of ways. There are so many good run defenses. There's one for sure (Pittsburgh's), maybe two, in our division. Sometimes you get those guys biting and you throw it to (the backs)."

McGahee, traded to Baltimore last year after four seasons with the Buffalo Bills (he missed the entire 2003 season with a knee injury), has never been used extensively as a receiver. He caught a career-high 43 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown in '07, but anticipates making many more receptions in Cameron's offense. He's looking forward to matching one of the top pass-catching seasons that Tomlinson has enjoyed: 100 in 2003, 79 in 2002, and 60 last season.

It stands to reason that the greater a multiple threat that McGahee can become, the more effective the Ravens' offense can be in keeping opposing defenses off-balance and creating a more comfortable atmosphere in which the quarterback can make reads and decisions.

"We've got a new coaching staff and the offense they're putting in is the best one I've been around so far, so I'm excited about it," McGahee said. "(Cameron) gets the backs more involved in the passing game. I feel I've got pretty good hands, so I felt like I should have been more (involved) in the passing game. We're looking forward to (doing what Tomlinson has done in San Diego). Not to be like him, but to be better."

"It was fun to watch LaDainian develop as a receiver in his first couple of years," Cameron said. "He's really developed into a great receiver, but he'll tell you that it took a lot of work. And no question (McGahee's receiving skill is) going to do nothing but get better and better and better."

No one should be happier about that than the Ravens' starting quarterback, whoever that might be.

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