Coming into the season, the Oakland Raiders' hopes were pinned on running back Darren McFadden's production. If McFadden could return to his 2010 form, the Raiders could be better than expected—at least that was the thought.
More power runs and fewer zone runs were supposed to make McFadden a dangerous player again after a disastrous 2012 season. The additional running threat of quarterback Terrelle Pryor was an unexpected development that should have helped McFadden even more.
The results through four games have been mixed. McFadden has made some big plays, but he's also only averaging just 4.1 yards per carry, and he injured his hamstring last Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
It's probably time for the Raiders and the Raider Nation to realize that McFadden is never going to be the player he was in 2010. It might even be time for the Raiders and McFadden to go their separate ways at the end of the season.
Obviously, McFadden's injury history was always the big fat elephant in the room, but the offense was still built around him. Former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was fired and replaced with Greg Olson mainly because he couldn't get much production out of McFadden—the team's highest-paid player.
McFadden was and is the centerpiece of the offense, but that needs to change. McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season, which is a serious problem for a feature back. The Raiders can't continue to rely on McFadden hoping and praying he's both productive and healthy at the same time.
McFadden is in a contract year, so his production this season and willingness to accept a reduced role could determine if he stays in Oakland. The Raiders certainly have plenty of salary cap space after purging the roster the past two seasons to re-sign McFadden if they want him, but general manager Reggie McKenzie has resisted to urge to overpay players even when they produce at a high level.
One of the biggest problems facing McFadden is his lack of vision, even in a scheme that better suits his style. McFadden's struggles in 2012 were blamed on the zone-blocking scheme, even though it's a scheme that has proven to be successful at the NFL level.
It was McFadden that struggled to see the cutback lanes necessary to make the zone-blocking scheme a success. That’s not to say that McFadden is a bad player, but he is a limited one.
Unfortunately, using more power doesn't magically fix McFadden unless the offensive line can consistently execute their blocks. Oakland's offensive line has been injured at the tackle position and is dealing with below-average play from their guards.
Defensive lines are so good in the NFL and quarterbacks are so valuable that it makes a lot more sense to build a line that can pass protect than one that can run block. It's rare for an offensive lineman to be both an excellent run-blocker and also fleet-footed enough to be a great pass protector.
With the way running backs take a beating, teams hardly have much time to build around the talents of a particular running back and should probably build the offensive line first. The Raiders have quality youth at three positions, but the guards still need to be upgraded.
The zone scheme solves these problems by focusing on fleet-footed linemen and not worrying about strength to push the pile quite as much. Zone runs continue to be a popular in the NFL for this reason.
McFadden needs great blocking in the power scheme to be a game-changing running back, but it’s hard to build such an offensive line in a league that is so reliant on the passing game. McFadden isn't a bad running back, but he's not the top-five running back he appeared to be from 2010-2011 under Hue Jackson.
Once tackles Jared Veldheer and rookie Menelik Watson return from injury the blocking should improve, but that could be too little too late to really help McFadden. If Oakland’s offensive line could get healthy and learn to play together, that would really help McFadden because he lacks the ability to create his own yardage near the line of scrimmage.
McFadden didn't work in the zone-blocking scheme, and he doesn't create his own yards in a power scheme. McFadden is fast and physical, but beyond that he's not a very good running back. McFadden isn't very elusive, and he has below-average vision.
Even though McFadden isn’t the most agile running back, it’s his lack of vision that really hurts him. If McFadden had field vision and durability, there's no doubt he'd be a top-five running back in the NFL if not one of the top three.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 50.2 percent of McFadden's runs have come on runs of 15 yards or more. When McFadden gets to the second level, he's extremely quick and physical. However, unlike other running backs that also have a lot of big runs, McFadden hasn't created many of those yards.
McFadden has just 215 yards rushing, and 108 of those yards have come on four runs of 15 or more yards. McFadden has averaged 2.2 yards per carry on his other 49 runs while the other top running backs on the list are averaging upwards of 2.8 yards per carry.
When McFadden gets to the second level, it's either because of superior blocking, poor gap control by the opposing defense or one of the rare occasions where McFadden uses his vision to find space to run.
On some occasions, McFadden even tries to find a cutback lane when he actually would have been better off running the play as designed. Vision isn’t always about freelancing; sometimes it’s about knowing what not to do.
Here, McFadden runs the play as designed and picks up a healthy gain of 14 yards, but only because the offensive line sustained their blocks. Against a better defense, McFadden wouldn't have been able to find so much operating space, and the game against the Denver Broncos was a good example.
McFadden has a cutback lane the size of a small country, but he decided to take the run up the middle. It doesn’t look like a horrible decision if he can hit the hole full speed and not get caught in traffic as the defensive line tries to close the gaps.
However, instead of hitting the crease, McFadden runs right into the back of his offensive lineman. On a few occasions offensive linemen have been pushed back into McFadden this season, but that wasn't the case here. McFadden still had the cutback if he wanted it, but he got great blocking and still turned the play into a good gain.
It was an explosive gain by McFadden but only because his offensive line was blocking so well. If even one of the defensive linemen had been able to disengage from a block or London Fletcher didn't buy the fake to the outside, McFadden only gets a short gain or less.
Here's another example—this one from Week 1—in which McFadden's vision fails him. McFadden just doesn't do a good job of visualizing or anticipating how players are going to move in front of him.
As you can see from this play, it's man-blocking with the left guard Andre Gurode going up to the second level to block the linebacker. McFadden thinks he sees the crease but fails to recognize that left tackle Khalif Barnes isn't going to be able to hold his block and that center Stefan Wisniewski isn't in position to sustain his block.
McFadden could bounce the play outside, but the more direct approach is to anticipate a cutback lane. As could have been predicted, the crease closes and McFadden has nowhere to go.
With McFadden's speed, this play could have been a nice gain if he had better vision. At worst, McFadden picks up a few yards despite poor blocking from his offensive line.
In the game against the Jaguars—McFadden's biggest game this season— we still see McFadden leaving yards on the field. The defense crashes the middle, leaving McFadden no gaps to run through.
McFadden chooses to just slam into a spot and use his strength to get a few positive yards. Keep in mind that many of these plays aren't necessarily bad plays from McFadden. He’s still a good running back, just a bit of a limited one.
With all the defenders crammed in the middle and occupied by blockers, McFadden could take one cut to the outside and find a ton of running room. At worst, McFadden could stiff arm or juke a single defender in space and be off to the races.
There have been a few times where McFadden has found an obvious cutback, but his lack of vision can still be an issue in these situations.
Against Washington, McFadden found a giant cutback lane to his left. The only defender that can prevent a big run is the safety. Gurode is going to get a block on the linebacker at the second level and all McFadden needs to do is beat one player.
McFadden makes a second cut to try to avoid the safety but ends up getting tackled by the safety and a linebacker. McFadden didn't need to cut it so sharply to the inside and should have probably tried to go outside where the safety would be forced to make a solo tackle on him.
It's still a solid gain, but something that could have been so much more if McFadden either had a little more agility or didn't cut so sharply to the inside and right back toward heart of the defense. It was nice to see that McFadden didn't always run to contact, but in this case he should have been able to get more yards.
Several of McFadden's big runs have come on option plays. Defenses have started to worry so much about Pryor running that they have lost gap integrity and allowed huge running lanes for McFadden.
Did McFadden do anything to create those yards other than run fast in the straight line? Not really. The defense simply can't stop a Pryor run to the outside and a run up the middle at the same time when they are in certain defenses.
As you can see, the linebackers both think Pryor is going to keep the ball and run to his right. Pryor gives it to McFadden, and the line does a decent job of executing their blocks.
McFadden turns this into a big gain, but virtually any running back would have a big gain on this play because the hole was big enough to drive a semi-truck through. McFadden might have picked up a few extra yards because he's fast, but otherwise he didn't do anything to create this big play.
A Power Runner
McFadden has always been a punishing runner, and that's still probably the best part of his game. McFadden falls forward and delivers the blow so the defender can't. Contrary to popular belief, McFadden's physical style is probably not why he's injury-prone since most of his injuries have been to his lower body.
According to Pro Football Focus, McFadden has averaged 2.51 yards per carry after contact this season. McFadden falls forward, pumps his legs and gets extra yards but so does his backup Rashad Jennings who has averaged 2.38 yards per carry after contract.
McFadden's style clearly favors a downhill running style, but without great blocking it's unlikely he's going to reach his 2010-level production. A power running game with McFadden is going to continue to be feast or famine unless the blocking or his vision improves, but that's probably not that likely at this point.
Future in Oakland?
Despite McFadden shortcomings, he still might have a future in Oakland because only three quality running backs are going to be free agents next year. The Raiders have too many other needs in the draft to burn a pick on a running back in the first three rounds, so free agency is going to be the way to go.
Ben Tate will be the top player on the market at just 26 years old, but he has cut his teeth in the zone-blocking scheme in Houston for his entire career, and the Raiders probably don't want to switch schemes again. Maurice Jones-Drew is the other, but he'll be 29 years old and might not have many miles left on his tires.
McFadden will be 27 years old next season, which means he still has a couple quality years left. Judging from the market for running backs last year, the Raiders should be able to bring back McFadden for cheap.
Last season, Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson both received an average of $4 million per season according to spotrac.com. Considering the Raiders will have at least $50 million in cap space next year and a ton of other needs that need to be addressed in the draft, it makes a lot of sense to bring McFadden back.
McFadden is still a quality running back, and his injury history and scheme limitations should keep the interest in him down as a free agent. As long as he is affordable, it absolutely makes sense to bring McFadden back next year.
However, it’s unwise to continue to lean on McFadden as a feature back, and it would be smart of the Raiders to commit to a two-back system going forward. McFadden's injury history and scheme limitations mean that there should be room for another running back to get carries every year.
The Raiders drafted Latavius Murray put him to injured reserve, but he would be a good candidate to share time with McFadden next season. Jennings is also a candidate, but he'll be a free agent at season's end.
Jennings has looked good so far this season and will have an opportunity to shine if McFadden misses time. Jennings' shot could be as soon as this Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers with McFadden nursing a sore hamstring.
The reality is that the Raiders need a good quarterback and wide receivers to have a playoff-quality offense, not an offense that is built around and totally reliant on McFadden's health and poor vision.
McFadden is a good running back, but this is probably the beginning of the end of this chapter of his career. If McFadden stays in Oakland, he has to realize that things are probably going to change so the Raiders can finally end more than a decade of futility.