By Nate Ulrich
and Ryan Lewis
Beacon Journal sports writers
BEREA: A few days before the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 17-6 on Sunday, running back Willis McGahee vowed to dramatically improve once he shook some rust off.
McGahee provided some evidence with an explosive 9-yard run to the Bengals’ 1-yard line that set up Brian Hoyer’s crucial touchdown pass to fullback Chris Ogbonnaya with 4:54 remaining. McGahee thought he crossed the goal line for a touchdown. But more important, he felt the play showed he still has something left in the tank.
“I think [that run] showed that I’m here to play,” McGahee said Monday after practice. “I know I ain’t Trent Richardson, but I’m here to play.”
The Browns signed McGahee a day after they traded Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, to the Indianapolis Colts Sept. 18 in exchange for a 2014 first-round selection.
McGahee’s debut with the Browns was a dud –- 9 yards on eight carries (1.1 average) Sept. 22 against the Minnesota Vikings. But he ran for 46 yards on 15 carries (3.1 average) against the Bengals. He had six carries for 33 yards during the offense’s clutch drive in the fourth quarter.
Now McGahee is aiming to take another step Thursday night when the Browns (2-2) host the Buffalo Bills (2-2), who had enough faith in him to draft him 23rd overall in 2003 despite the gruesome knee injury he suffered months earlier while playing for the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The Bills also traded him in 2007 to the Baltimore Ravens. McGahee made it to the playoffs three times with the Ravens (2008-10) and once with the Denver Broncos (2011), who cut him in June.
He’s now 2-0 with the Browns and feeling positive vibes.
“It reminds me of my first year in Denver … the heart, the determination,” McGahee said. “Not only that, I think the coaching staff helps out a whole lot. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen when coaches can get after you. It’s different. They’re working with guys. They’re helping everybody improve each week.”
Coach Rob Chudzinski said McGahee has shown leadership skills and brings some “swagger” to the locker room that had been missing.
“It can help. It can loosen guys up once they see how things go,” McGahee said. “When you start winning, everybody’s swagger is going to change a little bit. I’m just easing into it [a leadership role]. I’m not trying to be rah, rah, rah right off the bat. You got to earn that. … Couple touchdowns, couple 100-yard gains, then you know, my shirt will be off a little more when I’m doing interviews.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said it’s just nice having a veteran running back who “understands the offense.”
“He knows how to read the defense,” Thomas said. “He’s aware of blitz pickups. He can see when a play is only going to go for 4 yards and just put his head down and get those 4 yards.”
The Browns claimed running back and kick returner Fozzy Whittaker off waivers from the San Diego Chargers and released wide receiver Josh Cooper, the team announced Monday.
The Browns also waived running back Montario Hardesty, who was placed on injured reserve Aug. 27 after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Aug. 15. The move was previously reported Sunday.
Whittaker appeared in three games with the Chargers this season before they waived him Saturday. He returned six kickoffs for 156 yards (26.0 average). His longest return was 42 yards, and he fumbled once.
The Browns are thin at kick returner and could use Whittaker’s help. They have been using wide receiver Greg Little to handle kick return duties the past two games. Little has returned three kickoffs for 86 yards (28.7 average). His longest return was 30 yards.
The 5-foot-10, 202-pound Whittaker spent the final two weeks last season on the practice squad of the Arizona Cardinals. He entered the NFL last year as an undrafted rookie from the University of Texas.
Cooper played at Oklahoma State University with Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and signed with the team last year as an undrafted rookie. He appeared in six games last season and caught eight passes for 106 yards. Cooper appeared in one game this season, but he did not accumulate any statistics.
Hindered by several leg injuries, Hardesty has played in only 23 games, including five starts, since former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert drafted him in the second round in 2010. He has compiled 153 carries for 537 yards (3.5 average) and one touchdown to go along with 16 catches for 138 yards.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao (high-ankle sprain) was limited in practice Monday. He and Oniel Cousins rotated with the first-team offense.
Lauvao has practiced the past two weeks but has yet to play. He was listed as questionable heading into Sunday before being declared inactive against the Bengals.
“It just wasn’t where I thought I’d be, but now I feel a lot more confident about it,” Lauvao said. “I was just being safe, I guess.”
Does he expect to make his 2013 regular-season debut Thursday?
“I hope so,” Lauvao said. “I’m pretty positive about it.”
Other injury updates
Starting outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (sprained left knee), backup defensive end Billy Winn (strained quadriceps) and backup outside linebacker Quentin Groves (high-ankle sprain) did not practice Monday.
Groves was out of the walking boot he had been wearing since suffering his injury Sept. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens. He rode a stationary bike at the beginning of practice.
Like Lauvao, kicker Billy Cundiff (strained right quadriceps) and defensive end John Hughes (knee) were limited. Cousins (chest), wide receiver Josh Gordon (forearm), fullback Chris Ogbonnaya (thigh) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (right thumb) fully participated.
Honoring a legend
The Browns will honor Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium, and a City of Cleveland Proclamation will make the day “Jim Brown Day” as declared by Mayor Frank Jackson.
Brown, the Browns’ special adviser, will be recognized during a halftime ceremony. Brown also will join five breast-cancer survivors as honorary coin-toss captains as part of the pregame festivities.
“We look forward to celebrating Jim Brown this Thursday with football fans in Cleveland and throughout the country,” Browns CEO Joe Banner said in a news release. “I’ve always admired Jim. He is not only a cherished member of the Browns, but his contributions to the NFL and its national prevalence are immeasurable.”
The Bills’ top two running backs, starter C.J. Spiller and backup Fred Jackson, hope to push through injuries that could sideline them Thursday.
Spiller injured his left ankle Sunday and did not practice Monday. He said he’s planning on arriving at FirstEnergy Stadium a couple of hours early Thursday to run on the field and test how the ankle responds when he plants and cuts on it.
“If I can get to at least 80, 85 [percent], I think that would be good enough for me to play,” Spiller told reporters.
Jackson suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sunday, but he practiced on a limited basis Monday. He’s optimistic even though a torn MCL in his right knee ended his 2012 season after Week 14.
“I’m sore, but I’ll be ready to go,” Jackson told reporters. “It’s something that we can manage and I expect to play.”
If Spiller or Jackson cannot play or are limited, third-string running back Tashard Choice will receive a heavier workload. Last season, Choice had 20 carries for 91 yards (4.6 average) in the Bills’ 24-14 win over the Browns in Week 3.
Bills cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (wrist) and Ron Brooks (foot) did not practice Monday.
Rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo played all 68 defensive snaps Sunday. … Rookie defensive end Armonty Bryant made his regular-season NFL debut Sunday. He played five defensive snaps. … Chudzinski said Spencer Lanning’s kickoff in the first quarter that appeared to be on onside kick was actually supposed to be a squib kick.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.