2012 Broncos: Putting Willis McGahee's Injury in Perspective

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Yesterday the Denver Broncos announced that running back Willis McGahee suffered a tear of the MCL in his right knee on Sunday during their win against the Chargers. McGahee is currently 11th in the NFL in rushing with 731 yards. Aside from a few too many fumbles McGahee was having a stellar year, which makes this injury a big blow for the Broncos, as McGahee is expected to be out six to eight weeks, which covers the rest of the regular season and possibly the playoffs.

The Broncos have said that they will not be putting McGahee on injured reserve, meaning that he will remain eligible to play this season if he recovers before Denver’s season comes to an end, which could be a while. However, at age 31 and after ten seasons in the NFL, one has to wonder if this injury could be the end of the line for McGahee’s career. Of course, if McGahee can get himself healthy and get back on the field, it wouldn’t be the first time he made such an improbable comback.

McGahee’s entire NFL career has come as a result of his ability to recover from a serious knee injury. In his final college game, which happened to be the 2003 National Championship Game, McGahee suffered a devastating knee injury, tearing the ACL, PCL, and MCL in his left knee, which forced him to miss his entire rookie season.

After doubts about whether he’d be able to return to full strength after such a serious knee injury, McGahee was back on the field in 2004 and rushed for over 1,200 yards in three of the next four seasons. After a few mediocre years in Baltimore from 2008 – 2010 when he failed to rush for more than 700 yards in a season, which might have ended the NFL career of a lesser running back, McGahee came to Denver in 2011, where he was able to breathe new life into his career.

Last season at the age of 30, which is well beyond the prime years for a running back, McGahee came up one yard shy of the 1,200-yard mark for the Broncos on his way to playing in the Pro Bowl. Since the start of last season only Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch have accumulated more 100-yard rushing games than McGahee, as he has not just managed to revitalize his career after the age of 30, he has asserted himself as one of the league’s most productive runners. Before the injury, McGahee was on pace to approach 1,200 yards again this season, as he provided the Broncos a legitimate rushing threat to balance out Peyton Manning’s prolific passing attack.

The Broncos must now move on without McGahee for the remainder of the regular season and possibly the playoffs as well. Rookie Ronnie Hillman will move into the number one spot on the depth chart and have a much bigger role than anybody anticipated heading into the season. Hillman has a good burst and is capable of gaining big chunks of yards, but he doesn’t fit the profile of an every down that can get 20-25 carries per game and run between the tackles. Lance Ball will also see an increased role; after being used mostly as a third-down back Ball will be used more on first and second down, and will likely have to do a lot of the tough inside running that McGahee did. If Denver is desperate enough they could give former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno an opportunity. Moreno has just eight carries this season and hasn’t played since week two.

As for McGahee, the Broncos can only hope for a full and speedy recovery for their starting running back. But at age 31 and after a ten-year NFL career, can McGahee really make it all the way back to full form and help the Broncos make a run to the Super Bowl? It’s asking a lot from a player who’s already accomplished a lot more in his career than anyone could have expected. Before this latest injury, it would have been appropriate to ask: how is McGahee still going after all these years? Now, the question has to be: Can McGahee get it going again after yet another set back? Only time will tell.