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MULARKEY CONFIRMS MCGAHEE WILL START THIS WEEK <br> BILLS COACH SAYS MOVE IS NOT PERMANENT

The Buffalo Bills are making a change at running back -- at least for this week.

Bills coach Mike Mularkey said today that Willis McGahee will start Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. However, Mularkey also indicated that the move is not permanent and said that he considers Travis Henry a "starter" as well.

During an interview with Sporting News Radio on Tuesday, McGahee said he would be the starter against the Cardinals in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"Yes, I will be starting this game," McGahee told radio show host James Brown. "Like I say, when the opportunity comes you just have to take advantage of it."

This means a more prominent role for the Bills' second-year back.

"Based on Willis' performance the last couple of weeks with the run game I felt like he has given us a spark moving the ball when there have been holes and when there hasn't been holes," Mularkey said in a statement released today. "We're going to see if that can be a difference in this game."

The Bills have played both backs in the same backfield on a handful of plays each game this year. That's not about to become the Bills' main package because neither player is a first-line blocking back.

The move represents a shift in the Bills' thinking. Mularkey has maintained since he became coach that Henry was the No. 1 ball carrier.

Henry has been a productive starter since his rookie year in 2001, rushing for 1,438 yards in 2002 and 1,356 last season. He also earned the respect of teammates by playing through an assortment of injuries, including torn rib cartilage and a broken bone in his leg a year ago.

But Henry is off to a slow start this season. He leads the team with 300 rushing yards, but he hasn't had many holes to run through, which helps to explain his career-low average of 3.4 yards per carry. He was in uniform but did not play against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago because of a sprained arch in his left foot.

The Bills' offense has sputtered, particularly inside the 20-yard line. The Bills haven't scored a rushing touchdown since the third quarter of Game 13 last season.

The offense is in need of a spark, and McGahee's strong play recently has caused the Bills to rethink their backfield rotation.

McGahee ran for just 28 yards on 11 carries in very limited duty through the first three games. But he has 50 carries in the last three contests while averaging more than 70 yards per game during that span.

In the Dolphins game, McGahee's first career start, he carried 26 times for 111 yards -- the first 100-yard game by a Bills running back in seven games dating to last season -- and added 31 yards receiving. His 31-yard burst late in the fourth quarter allowed the Bills to run out the clock and preserve a 20-13 victory.

Henry regained his starting job last Sunday at Baltimore, gaining 27 yards on seven carries, but it was McGahee who gave the Bills' offense a jump-start in the second half with 50 yards on 13 carries.

At 6-foot and 235 pounds, McGahee offers more size than the 5-9, 215-pound Henry. Although McGahee hasn't fully regained the breakaway speed he had before suffering a major knee injury nearly two years ago, he is a physical runner who powers through would-be tacklers.

Last Sunday, Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis had McGahee wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, but McGahee broke the tackle for a short gain.

It will be interesting to see how Henry handles the demotion. He wasn't happy when the Bills drafted McGahee in the first round of the 2003 draft. He eventually accepted the situation, realizing that McGahee did not pose an immediate threat because he was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.

But the idea of losing playing time won't sit well with Henry, who spent most of the second half on the bench last Sunday.

Henry, who couldn't be reached to comment, seemed resigned on Sunday to having a lighter load.

"It's a situation that obviously I'm going to have to deal with this year," he said after the game.

McGahee told Sporting News Radio that neither he nor Henry is thrilled about playing a secondary role.

"Both of us want to start and we don't want to be a backup," McGahee said.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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