When he was signed following the lockout, many team insiders expected RB Willis McGahee to be the Broncos' change-of-pace back, a power complement to starter Knowshon Moreno's speed style of running. At age 30 and with a history of knee issues, it was expected McGahee's carries would be limited and the team would use him in stretches instead of being the every-down runner he was earlier in his career. Head coach John Fox used two primary runners with the Panthers, but the approach in Denver was to have Moreno be the featured runner with McGahee playing in certain situations.
All of that has changed. McGahee took the top spot on the depth chart early in the season after Moreno struggled and hasn't looked back, keying a Broncos rushing attack that is fifth in the NFL with 147.5 yards per game. The veteran runner is gaining the most yards per game of his entire career this season, and is looking like a young player in the team's read-option offense.
McGahee, who played the past four seasons with the Ravens before coming to Denver, was thought to have lost his breakaway running ability after a tough 2010 season. A year ago in Baltimore he gained 3.8 yards per carry and never had a run longer than 30 yards, but he said his speed "never went anywhere; I just needed the opportunity." He has received that with the Broncos, where his 17.6 carries per game are the most since 2007.
Playing alongside QB Tim Tebow has been mutually beneficial to both McGahee and the second-year signalcaller. McGahee said that because of the respect defenses have for Tebow's running ability, he has had more chances to break big plays. He already has five runs of 20 yards or more, including a 60-yard TD run in Week Nine against the Raiders on an option-read play that saw several Oakland linebackers follow Tebow instead of McGahee.
Tebow agreed that the partnership has made the offense run smoothly, saying about McGahee, "He's someone that comes in every day and works extremely hard. He's such a competitor in the games, and it's huge having him on our team. He's a great asset."
Although a broken hand kept him out of one game this season, McGahee is in relatively good health given his age. Considered to be only a complementary piece at the start of the season, he has shown he will be a key if the Broncos are to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season.
Follow Eli Kaberon on Twitter