Sports

NFL Analysis: Oakland Raiders Will Go as Far as Darren McFadden Carries Them

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The word out of Napa, other than that the Valley’s 2009 Cabernets are now drinkable, is that Darren McFadden is tearing by defenders in training camp – just like you remember him doing.

If it seems a while since we’ve seen No.20, that’s because it has been.

He missed the last nine games of the 2011 season with a foot sprain equivalent to a cracked axle. That’s the sort of problem you can’t simply rev through, hoping to get to Wendy’s before grinding to a painful stop. No, that’s at least a few days taking the bus folks, mustard down the shirt with every pothole.

But through the first six games of last season, McFadden led the NFL with 600 yards rushing, and had five touchdowns. Those are the beginnings of MVP numbers. It’s the endings that are undermining it all.

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In recent seasons McFadden has led the pros in yards per carry with more than five a pop, but because he’s not always on the field, he’s never earned as many Chris Berman mentions as he deserves. And you know Boomer likes to showcase his gravelly Ralph Kramden-soundingRaaaiiiiideeeers impression whenever possible. McFadden needs to feed the beast!

Surely the issue is the way he runs – hard, and with perpetual pace. He’s the type of rusher that sees space and punches the gas, blasting into daylight like Andretti for the checkered flag. McFadden has Olympic technique – the sort of form that makes you recall sprinter Michael Johnson – upright, pumping and purposeful. Like Super Mario. But just as with Nintendo’s highest profile plumber, it’s also an approach that requires space—and generally few hammer-throwing turtles—to succeed.

Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer recently called the back “unreal” and “explosive”. His speed is unreal. But the explosiveness, that rapid early motion, is perhaps affecting his longevity. It might be just what tweaks the knee, or jabs the toe, or cracks the axle. Or maybe it’s just bad luck. And yet – and I only say this because I want to see a full 16 games of McFadden – he needs to be more selective on his runs. When he hits the gaps, there’s a silver and black blur nobody’s catching. Once he enters the pit of monsters awaiting him at that second level, however, McFadden can take a beating, as all marked men do.

Sometimes, the hard runner needs to be smarter.

The Raiders can help counter the battering by giving McFadden enough spells on the sideline, but also by using him more out wide, where he’s proven to be an exceptional receiver and runner after the catch (over four seasons he’s averaged no less than eight yards per reception). While the Adrian Petersons churn across the gridiron, over and through people, all power and grimace, McFadden blazes like a Ferrari. And a Ferrari is best on the freeway, not ricocheting into Buicks.

There’s plenty of tread on those tires, but it’s no good if the car’s always in the shop.

JP Pelosi is a journalist and the editor of Why Football Is Cool, a blog about pro football trends, ideas and culture. He started as a sportswriter on his college paper The Mace and Crown at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. JP has since written stories for The Globe and Mail, The Virginian Pilot, Inside Hoops, The Bleacher Report and Technorati’s football blog The Gridiron Grind. You may email JP directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jppelosi16