January 8, 2003
McGahee, McGahee Not
by Warren DeLuca
With about twelve minutes to play in the fourth quarter of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, most considered Miami’s Willis McGahee to be a future NFL franchise back. The redshirt sophomore had emerged in 2002 from a reserve role behind Clinton Portis the previous year to break Edgerrin James’ single-season rushing record at the school. At 6’1" and 225 pounds, McGahee had the strength and balance to break tackles, the vision to find holes, and the speed and acceleration to explode through them. He had also shown that he was a threat to turn a simple screen or outlet pass into a big play. While McGahee was not the second coming of Alonzo Highsmith, he was a willing and capable blocker who had experience at fullback. With about eleven and a half minutes to play in the Fiesta Bowl, McGahee caught a pass in the flat and took an Ohio State helmet to his left knee, tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and putting his football future in jeopardy.
McGahee underwent successful surgery a few days later and now faces a rehabilitation process that could stretch into the 2003 season. While his doctor has said that McGahee should make a full recovery, no one knows if he will ever have the same quickness or burst. ESPN reported that Texans officials were "devastated" by the injury, because McGahee was the player the team wanted with the third pick in the first round. He could have been an impact player to pair with David Carr and build an offense around. The Texans averaged an NFL-worst 3.2 yards per rush in 2002 and McGahee was generally considered to be the only elite running back prospect in the draft this year should he have come out as expected.
Even though he has two more years of college eligibility left and had not announced his plans, it seemed fairly certain that McGahee would enter the 2003 draft. He fortuitously took out an injury insurance policy shortly before the Fiesta Bowl covering the time period from the game until the draft this April, making his intentions fairly clear. Now that he will no longer be a top pick, he will return to Miami, won’t he? Most likely, yes. McGahee had indicated that his decision to leave college would likely turn on whether or not he was projected to go in the top 10 picks. The general assumption is that he will stay at Miami, rehab his knee, and return to the field as soon as possible, whether that be sometime in the 2003 season or not until 2004, to try to regain that lofty draft status. Besides, if he’s not able to play again, he can collect $2.5 million tax free from the insurance policy. A no-brainer, right?
Not necessarily. While he will likely return to school, a case can be made for the injured McGahee still testing the NFL waters, and rumor has it that he has not totally closed the door on that idea. According to published reports, McGahee would only collect on the insurance policy if he’s not able to return to football, and would not be eligible to be paid until January 3, 2004. If he is able to return but is not the impact player that he was before, he gets nothing under the policy.
If McGahee were to declare for the draft this year, he would have to concede that he would not get the huge payday of a top pick, like the $6 million bonus and $1.3 million base salary that third overall pick Joey Harrington received in 2002 as part of his six-year deal. More likely, McGahee would get a signing bonus of anywhere from $20,000 to $350,000 (depending on where he was drafted) and a three-year contract for the NFL minimums ($225,000 in 2002 for rookies). He could probably negotiate some incentives into his contract to reward him if he is able to return to form. He would be getting paid in 2003, though, and might also benefit from having his rehab program run and overseen by an NFL franchise with a vested interest in his future. Since the team would likely view him as a long-term project, he would not have the pressure of having to rush back too quickly. At Miami, he might try to come back too early in order to work back up the scouts’ rankings for 2004 (or 2005), and when he is healthy he would likely be splitting carries with Frank Gore, another impressive Hurricane prospect who was actually ahead of McGahee on the depth chart until Gore injured his own knee last spring. McGahee may also have to pay an increased premium for another insurance policy, if he is able to get one at all.
Where would McGahee be drafted in 2002? First off, he definitely would be selected. Some team would be willing to roll the dice on a player of his caliber, even one with such a severe injury, at some point in the draft. A great deal would depend on the status of his knee in April, after he has begun his rehab and after the various team doctors have had a chance to take their own look. The Texans would seem to be a good fit for McGahee – they need a running back, they have several extra middle-round picks so that they can afford to gamble, and they are still in "building mode" and would be willing to be patient with an injured potential superstar like they have been with Tony Boselli.
Would a team use a first round pick on McGahee? Depending upon the medical reports, it’s not out of the question that the Raiders would use one of their two first-rounders to take him. Consider Al Davis’ record of risky or unconventional picks: nearly-deported party boy kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round (2000), psychologically-scarred "Robo QB" Todd Marinovich in the first round (1991), Toronto Argonaut Raghib Ismail in the fourth round (1991), Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson in the seventh round (1987), and active duty Navy ensign Napoleon McCallum in the fourth round (1986). A guy with a bad wheel seems pretty tame by comparison. It’s not likely, but never underestimate The Godfather’s flair for the dramatic.
"His career is over." That was the initial reaction of 99% of the viewers who saw McGahee’s knee bend the wrong way when struck by a Buckeye helmet. A few days later, his there’s room for hope, but only time will tell.
WAR ROOM NOTES: How many agents must have called the top underclassmen who haven’t declared for the draft to make sure the players saw McGahee’s injury? The deadline to declare is January 15… The all-star season begins on Friday with the Cactus Bowl (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest) down in Kingsville in South Texas. This game features the best of Division II, so while the game lacks star power, it gives fans the opportunity to see potential gems like OT Reggie Wells (Clarion State), DE Charles Alston (Bowie State), OLBs Khalid Abdullah (Mars Hill) and Chaun Thompson (West Texas A&M), and CB Drayton Floyd (Tuskegee). On Saturday, the East-West Shrine Game (1:00 p.m., ESPN) will showcase some of the biggest names from college football.
Willis McGahee Return to Houston Pro Football