ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When taken in a vacuum, the words "Willis McGahee has been released by the Broncos" could stun observers. No player was more singularly responsible for the revival of Denver's ground game since 2011 after the previous two years saw a steep decline because of neglect and ill-advised strategic choices, and the captain's "C" he bore on his jersey late in 2011 – a rarity for a running back – was testament to his value on the team.
But the momentum toward the move has been building since last November, when a knee injury forced Knowshon Moreno into the lineup. From there, it was a chain reaction. First, Moreno had a pair of 100-yard games in six starts. Then Jacob Hester was signed; he learned the offense in three weeks and began settling into a hybrid role where he can line up almost anywhere on the field. In the offseason, Ronnie Hillman focused on adding and keeping on weight so he didn't end the season below 180 pounds as he did as a rookie, while Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson were re-signed. Finally, in April, the Broncos used a second-round pick on Montee Ball.
Still, until this week, McGahee remained in the mix – even though five other runners have carried the football for the Broncos in the regular season, and in spite of the fact that a second-round running back isn't picked to sit on the bench and accumulate service time toward a pension; he's added to play frequently, and play now. The extra time gave the Broncos a chance to pause and figure out whether the rest of their stable was ready to handle the burden without McGahee.
Through three weeks of organized team activities and two days of minicamp, they got their answer. Moreno was well on the road to recovery from a knee injury, enough to get some repetitions. Hester was used all over the place. Lance Ball and Johnson are known commodities from a depth perspective. And Hillman and Montee Ball both have shown enough signs that they can pick up blitzes to justify expansive roles.
The reasons for McGahee's absence from OTAs are legitimate, but aren't germane to the discussion of the reasons behind his release. What mattered was simple: that his absence put him behind his fellow running backs in adjusting to the quicker offensive pace and other tweaks instituted by new Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. Gase noted Wednesday that this was the reason why his repetitions were limited at minicamp.
"We've had some changes in some of the things we've done on offense and he's just trying to get used to what we're doing," Gase said.
Because of that, his differential advantage as a 31-year-old veteran – the cerebral aspect -- was eliminated. He knows the offense as a whole after two years in it, but wouldn't be ahead of others as he had been, leaving his age a detriment, given the wear and tear of nine seasons (and another one spent on injured reserve).
Still, the Broncos didn't have to cut him. If they wanted to do right by themselves and no one else, they could have held onto McGahee until the last possible moment before the cut to 53 players on Aug. 30, keeping him as an insurance policy in case a rash of injuries hit the position. (This is a realistic concern every summer; the Broncos were reminded of this in 2010, when Moreno and Correll Buckhalter were injured in the first hour of the opening training camp practice.)
Instead, they made the move now, and gave McGahee a better chance of emerging elsewhere before the regular season.
The Broncos will gain $2,000,000 in salary-cap room by cutting McGahee, leaving another $1,000,000 in dead money. But this wasn't the reason behind the move, or the timing of it. They were already in cap compliance and had more than enough room to get the rest of their draft picks signed and make multiple veteran pick-ups during training camp and the preseason, as they did last year with Jim Leonhard and Keith Brooking.
Instead, the move was about the future. For the Broncos, the future is now, in the parlance of George Allen, albeit with a different meaning, since it applies to making the young runners the centerpiece. For McGahee, it's a chance at an NFL future, which increased because the move was made now, rather than later.