How Important Is Darren McFadden to the Oakland Raiders Offense?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystAugust 14, 2013

Aug 9, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) catches a pass from quarterback Matt Flynn (15) during the first quarter of the game against the Dallas Cowboys at O.Co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

If Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden is healthy and playing in a man-blocking scheme, he’s a dynamic player. The Raiders lack dynamic players, so keeping McFadden healthy and productive is presumably one of the keys to their season.

Oakland’s offensive coordinator and his zone-blocking scheme were jettisoned this offseason because McFadden proved to be a poor fit. The running game was actually productive when McFadden was out, but the Raiders still made wholesale changes so they could get him on track.

Obviously, the Raiders think McFadden is an important part of their offense, and if he’s productive they will win more games. How important McFadden is to the offense really depends on the perspective.

It’s easy to say that McFadden is vitally important to the Raiders offense as if it’s some sort of common knowledge. I’ve done it; no one is going to question that perspective. Even if this is true, it doesn’t really quantify how important he is to the offense.

Outside of the quarterback, there are five ball-eligible players on the field at any given time. That means the offensive production must be divided by at least five and probably six players. Most teams have at least six players with 50 or more touches, so a player that produces 15 percent of his team’s offensive yards or touchdowns would theoretically be average.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson produced 43 percent of his team’s offensive yards and 38 percent of their touchdowns. Suffice it to say that Peterson was a very important player for the Vikings in 2012. Many of the top receivers and running backs in the league produce upwards of 30 percent of their team’s yards and/or touchdowns.

To compare McFadden, we can only take the yards and points scored when he was actually able to play. McFadden produced 23.9 percent of the Raiders’ yards in 2012 and 14.3 percent of the touchdowns when he was active. At least last year, McFadden wasn’t vital to the offense in any significant way.

McFadden was a different player in the man-blocking scheme of former head coach Hue Jackson, producing upwards of 30 percent of the team’s yards and touchdowns when was active from 2010 to 2011. When healthy during this stretch, there weren’t many players more vital to their team’s success.

However, there are other ways to look at McFadden’s performance. It’s possible he was a product of a great offensive scheme and not really the vital piece he appeared to be for 20 games.

The first hint might be that McFadden’s yards per touch noticeably coincides with his team’s number of wins—regardless of how many games he played. For every yard per touch McFadden had over 5.0, the Raiders won approximately three games (or approximately 0.33 yards per touch over 5.0 per win). This shouldn’t be so closely aligned since McFadden has missed 23 games over the last five seasons, and yet it was nearly a perfect predictor.

This method was never off by more than 0.5 wins except for McFadden’s rookie season. It could be a coincidence or it could have everything to do with the offense and a lot less to do with McFadden.

At least this data demonstrated the huge role the offense had in turning McFadden into a productive player and winning football games. The Raiders are hoping they can find the productive McFadden by switching back to the man-blocking scheme this year.

A bigger test of a player’s importance is how that team does without him. Peyton Manning got hurt, and the Indianapolis Colts tanked in 2011. If a truly important player goes down with an injury, the team should struggle without him.

This hasn’t necessarily been the case for McFadden throughout his career, at least when it comes to yards and scoring. In fact, the Raiders have scored 1.3 more points per game when McFadden isn’t active than when he is. Over the last four years, McFadden has been worth only 2.2 additional points per game to the Raiders when he is active.

Using this average, the Raiders wouldn’t have even climbed the rankings a single spot in points scored last season had he played all 16 games. In other words, McFadden hasn’t been that vital to the Raiders offensive production.

Even when McFadden was very productive under Jackson, the Raiders scored just 0.8 more points per game when he was active. The Raiders offense has certainly been better when McFadden is healthy, but not significantly.

Of course, McFadden doesn’t just produce raw statistics and impact just the offense. The running game helps control the clock and sets up play action. In theory, McFadden helps the offense, defense and special teams.

Although it’s unwise to judge players by wins and losses, comparing a team’s win percentage with and without a player can be telling if the sample size is large enough. In this case, the sample size is 57 games with McFadden active and 23 games with him inactive are more than enough to glean some useful information.

The Raiders have won 40.4 percent of their games when McFadden is active and 30.4 percent when he is inactive. If this were to continue to hold true, the Raiders would be 10 percent more likely to win when McFadden was able to play.

The Raiders worst win percentage in a season when McFadden was active was 33.3 percent, while the best was 57.1 percent. When McFadden was out, the win percentage ranged from zero to 66.7 percent.

From these winning percentages, I ran a simple simulation to determine just how valuable McFadden was to the Raiders on a per game basis. The results probably shouldn’t be that surprising.

The method for this simulation was to pair the Raiders’ best, worst and average yearly winning percentages when McFadden was active with the average and worst yearly winning percentages when McFadden was inactive. When McFadden was inactive, the simulation would also take into account the NFL average winning percentage (roughly 50 percent) and a baseline win percentage (18.75 percent) which is equal to three wins.

The hope was to balance the Raiders’ past performance with and without McFadden plus any likely regression or progression toward the NFL mean to determine McFadden’s value.

There were 12 different scenarios each with 17 possibilities for McFadden’s health (0 to 16 games played) resulting in a simulated 204 possible outcomes. These outcomes were then averaged together to get a sliding scale based on McFadden’s ability to stay healthy.

If McFadden were to play zero games, the Raiders would theoretically struggle to win four games. If McFadden were able to stay healthy for 16 games, the Raiders could win nine games. If McFadden were to play his career average of 11 games, the Raiders would win seven games.

Overall, this method seems to have fairly optimistic projections for the Raiders. Another method assumes a baseline three wins for the Raiders without McFadden and takes the Raiders’ best, worst and average yearly win percentages when McFadden was active.

This method provides a wider range of outcomes based on McFadden’s health, from three wins if he doesn’t play a game to 10 wins if he plays 16. However, McFadden’s average of 11 career games played still puts the Raiders around seven wins.

Both projections are a win better than my six-win estimate for the Raiders in 2013, which means I may be undervaluing McFadden’s potential impact. The bottom line is that an average year from McFadden is worth six to seven wins to the Raiders, and a great year could be worth much more.

If McFadden stays healthy (big if), accounts for 30 percent of the Raiders’ offensive yards and touchdowns and averages around six yards per touch, there’s a chance the Raiders will surprise people in 2013. McFadden is so important to the success of the team that his smaller impact on the total offensive output simply doesn’t matter.


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