Willis McGahee has been exception to the rules

For an NFL running back, age is not just a number. It's often the bottom line. For Willis McGahee, however, it's just noise, like some dog barking through the screen door.

"I've heard all kinds of things for my whole career," McGahee said. "People think I'm too old. Some people say I'm too slow.

"I like for people to say I can't do something. I always have. I use it."

But what if history says the odds are against you?

McGahee is a 30-year-old running back who will turn 31 in mid-October. The NFL routinely spits out 30-something running backs like unwanted sunflower seeds. Spits out those who are Canton-bound, backups and most everybody else in between.

Most don't make it that far. Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell and Marshall Faulk played a combined seven seasons at age 30 or older, but did not finish with 1,000 yards rushing in any of those seven years. The recently retired LaDainian Tomlinson had no 1,000-yard seasons after his 30th birthday, though he played in 43 more games.

Then there's McGahee, already an exception to the rule. He says he's ready and willing to take the ball as many times as the Broncos will hand it to him.

"I expect to get some touches," McGahee said, looking forward to a season that begins Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I'm pretty sure it's going to be quite a few, I don't know if it's going to be 30, or 35 (a game), or anything like that, but I'll get my hands on the ball."

"Willis is Willis," said Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. "We're going to give him as many touches as he can handle."

McGahee tore three ligaments in his left knee in his final college game at Miami, the kind of injury that puts a question mark next to any NFL hopeful. He didn't play as a rookie in 2003, then went on to rush for 1,128 yards in his second year. He was an exception.

When the Broncos signed him as a 29-year-old veteran, set to enter his ninth season, some saw him as a complement at that stage of his career, a rotation player. Instead, he led the team in carries, rushing yards, made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement and uncorked the run he was perhaps most proud about. It was a 60-yard touchdown sprint against the Raiders when he outran Oakland's speedy secondary.

By season's end he was a 30-year-old running back with 1,199 yards rushing on 4.8 yards per carry — his third-highest season total with his second-best yards per carry.

"McGahee is a stud of a runner," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "He's very talented. He's a very physical player, a combative player, one that we respect."

Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton each had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons after they turned 30. Curtis Martin had two, including an NFL rushing crown at age 31. It's hard to stay in the NFL for a decade at any position, but those who have done it at running back are on the shortest of lists.

Still, as the Broncos formally unveil their offense with Peyton Manning behind center Sunday night, there might be no player more important for Manning's health and well-being in the pocket than McGahee. Manning himself has stressed the importance of the Broncos having options in the offense that don't include Manning throwing the ball.

There is precedent for Manning being cocooned in a top running game. The Indianapolis Colts were second in the league in rushing in 2005, fourth in 2004. In Manning's formative years — 1999 and 2000 — the Colts' Edgerrin James was the league's rushing champion in back-to-back seasons.

"Everyone thinks with him we're throwing it all the time, but any quarterback wants to have a running game," McCoy said. "It makes his job that much easier."
"That's going to play a huge role for us this year," Manning said. "How can you not like what Willis does?"

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