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McGahee's production doesn't justify new deal

This won't come as any great surprise, but Willis McGahee was not in a celebratory mood in the early stages of New Year's Eve. The Bills' featured back wasn't raising a glass. He was raising an objection.

McGahee rushed 11 times for just 23 yards in Sunday's season-ending, 19-7 loss to the Ravens. He fell 10 yards short of a 1,000-yard season. Asked if he felt the Bills hadn't run the ball enough, the 990-yard man nodded toward an adjacent locker, where offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was standing.

"There you go right there," McGahee said. "Talk to him."

Fairchild didn't hesitate when he was asked if the Bills had abandoned the run. "Yeah, I probably did. They're tough to run against. Had we been able to get a little more out of it, it might have helped us a little more."

Yeah, they might have kept running the ball if McGahee had been remotely productive. He gained 3 yards on five carries in the first half. He didn't have a run of more than 5 yards. Two plays into the second half, McGahee made an early New Year's Eve ball drop, fumbling the ball away at his 25-yard line.

I don't mean to lay the blame for this loss at McGahee's feet. The Bills were simply outclassed. They played hard and made a game of it for awhile. But Baltimore, a sensational defensive team playing for a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs, was clearly superior.

Maybe McGahee should have waited another week before making his public demand for a contract extension. If McGahee wants to be compensated like one of the NFL's elite runners, he didn't make much of a case. He can blame the offensive line, or J.P. Losman, or the play-calling. But if the guy is so great, you'd think he could make a difference against one of the league's top defenses.

McGahee has played hurt this year. He's played hard -- although he didn't seem that inspired Sunday. But he's kidding himself if he thinks the Bills are going to hand him a lucrative signing bonus one year before his original contract expires. McGahee isn't an elite back, and he doesn't have much leverage. It could be that he's trying to create friction and force a trade.

If so, the Bills should think about obliging him. They are a young team on the rise. They have come along faster than a lot of critics expected. Losman made significant progress and a 7-9 record is something to build on. But they still have a long way to go to be a true contender. And they know it.

"We haven't arrived, certainly, to get to the level of these type of teams -- playoff teams," coach Dick Jauron said. "That's our goal. It was a terrific year in that regard. We played almost all the big-name teams in the league, and we played most of them when they were hot. Our team stood in there and fought."

That's true. The Bills wound up playing one of the toughest schedules in the league. Their opponents had a record of 147-109, a .574 winning percentage. They played eight games against defenses ranked in the top eight in the NFL. They played six games against division winners.

That makes their 7-9 finish seem even more impressive (it will also result in them picking lower in the draft). The Bills were consistently competitive. But the fact remains, they were 0-6 in those six games against division winners.

So let's not kid ourselves. While they've made strides this season, they still have serious shortcomings. When it truly mattered, they weren't good enough at the point of attack. They couldn't run the ball effectively in crucial situations and they couldn't stop the run with the game on the line.

Their opponents averaged 4.7 yards a carry, an atrocious figure -- and they were especially woeful in fourth quarters. They had one of their better games Sunday, but wore down toward the end. The Ravens gained 63 of their 111 rushing yards in the final quarter. It was a familiar pattern.

Offensively, it was the Bills' worst game since the loss in Indianapolis. Losman was pressured all day and made a couple of bad decisions. The offensive line had a rough day. The Bills got to within 9-7, but they never really seemed to be in it. The Ravens played as if they had no real fear of losing.

That'll happen when a team can't run the ball. The Ravens are a great defensive team, probably the best in the league. Entering the game, they were allowing just 3.3 yards a rush on the season. The Bills have allowed nearly twice as many rushing yards as the Ravens this season.

"It's a little slap in the face tonight," Fairchild said, "but they've done that to a lot of people. We make a few plays here and there, were in it with a chance to win late. Obviously, we didn't get as much productivity out of (the running game) as we'd like."

Fairchild seemed to lose confidence in the running game after McGahee's fumble early in the third. The Bills called passes on 12 of the next 13 plays after the fumble. Of course, they also scored their only touchdown during that stretch on Losman's 44-yard bomb to Lee Evans.

You can't blame McGahee for being disappointed. But you can't blame Fairchild for losing faith in him, either. McGahee hasn't been close to an elite runner against the top teams. In games against division champions, he averaged 2.8 yards a carry (81 for 228). He missed the game against Indianapolis, the worst run defense of the division winners.

Still, 2.8 a carry is 2.8 a carry. You don't give a $10 million signing bonus to a runner who can't even average 3 yards a pop against the top teams. McGahee has a year left on his contract. So do Losman and Evans. You don't hear them crying for new deals. Maybe they're waiting until the team actually accomplishes something.

This makes seven years in a row for the Bills without a playoff appearance. In the face of such futility, you don't separate yourself from your teammates by making contract demands. There you go, Willis. Look in the mirror.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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