Darren McFadden #20 of the Oakland Raiders runs through the tackle of Brian Dawkins #20 and Mario Haggan #57 of the Denver Broncos at Mile High on September 12, 2011
The Raiders have a new coaching staff in place this season. Much of that new staff has little to no experience in their current positions and therefore it is hard to know what to expect from them. That is not as not really the case for the offensive staff, however. Offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, in particular not only has a great deal of experience, but this is his second stint as Raiders offensive coordinator.
With that experience, there is much to look back upon. And when Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen look back at that, they no doubt see great possibilities.
Knapp brings with him the zone blocking scheme. Or should I say, brings back the zone blocking scheme. He ran it in Oakland four seasons ago and Tom Cable continued to run it after Knapp left.
The longtime offensive mind has had some success with the zone blocking scheme. Successes he can quickly lay out for anyone interested.
"Here's my background in it," says Knapp. "I have a very firm and a strong belief in the zone scheme. I probably have been in a very unique situation from a coaching perspective in that I've gone to four different places and have implemented the zone scheme or it was already implemented when I was there. So when I was in Atlanta, Warrick Dunn had his career best season running the zone scheme. That was with Alex Gibbs. Then when I came here, Tom Cable was the O-line coach with new linemen, and Justin Fargas runs for 1,000. I go up to Seattle and Justin Forsett averages 5.4 a carry and 600 yards in half a season. Then I go to Houston - all these places ran the zone scheme - and an undrafted rookie leads the NFL in rushing. So, if you did a research project and said change all the variables and see what comes out, I've lived it first-hand on how much that I think the zone scheme benefits a team. And bringing Frank Pollack from Houston, who's been trained under Alex Gibbs and John Benton the last five years, will make for a smooth transition. The guys up front will do fine. I feel confident about that."
By all indications, his confidence in the Raiders' offensive line is understandable. The team has several smart and athletic linemen, some of whom have experience in the zone blocking scheme. The two starting guards in particular, Cooper Carlisle and Mike Brisiel, have both had success running the zone.
Both Carlisle and Brisiel also have experience with Knapp. Carlisle was the Raiders starting right guard during Knapp's previous stint in Oakland and Brisiel comes over from Houston where Knapp was the Texan's quarterback coach last season. Knapp knows what to expect from them.
The other three linemen for the Raiders are left tackle Jared Veldheer, center Stefen Wisniewski, and right tackle Khalif Barnes. All three are smart players. Although that fact may be debatable with regard to Barnes if you consider his penalty numbers to be any indication of intelligence. But as far as Veldheer and Wisniewski are concerned, their intelligence is well documented. Their athleticism is also never been a question.
But it isn't the offensive line that raises the concern. They can execute the scheme and they can handle their assignments. The question is; can Darren McFadden take advantage of it? He couldn't do it before.
McFadden came into the league while Knapp was the Raiders offensive coordinator. His rookie season, he couldn't get it going. The team opted instead to give the ball to Justin Fargas who ran for 853 yards that season. McFadden continued to struggle in the zone scheme in his second season.
It wasn't until the Raiders began going away from the zone scheme in McFadden's third season that he was able to break out. Now switching back to the zone, would seem to be a cause for some concern. But according to McFadden there is no concern and he claims the blocking scheme was not the issue.
"I feel I can fit in any scheme running the ball," said McFadden. "Now I feel like I've got my feet wet in the NFL, now I have my confidence boosted, so it's just, going out there and playing with confidence I'm going to go out there and run the ball."
"[Zone vs power scheme] is the same thing, running behind the blockers and making the right cuts, and making the right reads, and going."
McFadden also said he expected he would reach 1800 yards last season had he not gone out injured six games into the season. He had 610 yards after six weeks which works out to just over 1600 yards on the season. He had 1157 yards rushing over 13 games in 2010 which works out to a little over 1400 yards in a 16 game season. Which means his average went up by a projected 200 yards per season. He has set his goal again at 1800 yards and If the projected trend continues, 1800 yards is in reach. Of course, that would mean he stays healthy all season--something he has yet to do in his career.
The coaches are very excited to see what McFadden is capable of doing when he is fully healthy. Coach Allen has been talking up the possibilities of having a healthy McFadden all offseason. Understandable considering McFadden ran all over Allen's Broncos' defense in the season opener last year-- running for 150 yards on 22 carries for a 6.82 yards per carry average.
"[He's an] explosive home-run hitter on any given down," said Allen of McFadden. "and those are guys that are tough to deal with because you might bottle ‘em up for a while, but all it takes is one play and he hits a home run and ends up beating you. So he's an exciting player."
Though we saw McFadden's numbers improve significantly since 2010, his home run ability has never quite been there even when he was 100%. Where McFadden began to have success was when he stopped trying to run around guys, and started running through them. His stiff arms and plows through tacklers gained him significant extra yards. And that style, as he said, works in zone or power blocking.
That aggressive style was a sign of the "confidence" and "getting [his] feet wet" (aka 'maturity') of which McFadden spoke. If that was indeed the only issue with his low numbers (and injuries, of course) during the years the Raiders ran the zone blocking scheme, then there is cause for high expectations by both he and his coaches. But there is also a chance he is just not suited for the scheme.
There are a couple different schools of thought here. Some would say the zone blocking scheme makes lesser backs looks great and turns great backs into spectacular. Others would say either you are a fit for the scheme or you're not. What the Raiders are hoping, is for a third option. That being McFadden was once simply not a fit for the ZBS but that his new running style has changed that. At which point he would fit into the ‘great back turned spectacular' category ala Arian Foster.
I am inclined to agree with the third option. McFadden doesn't shy away from running between the tackles as he did early on. He doesn't dance around and get tripped up by the ankles anymore. He is the aggressor. He sees his alley and takes it along with taking on any prospective tacklers along the way. And in the zone, the linemen will be handling a good deal of those prospective tacklers too.
If McFadden is fully healthy, he may be able to find some of that breakaway speed he is supposed to possess. Add in the blazing speed of his backup, Taiwan Jones (4.28 40-yard dash), and a seam can quickly turn into a house call regardless of who is carrying the ball.
The Raiders' high expectations may be justifiable.