We've been here before. Many times, in fact. The Raiders have supposedly ‘one of the best weapons in the NFL' in Darren McFadden ‘when he's healthy' and ‘if they can use him correctly.' Every year the fans salivate over his game changing potential. And every year, they are let down.
It was last year at this time when I dared say Jamaal Charles was the best running back in the AFC West. I caught a lot of flak for that one from Raiders fans who insisted McFadden was the better of the two backs. The notion that McFadden could be better than Charles seemed cute then. It is downright laughable now. Charles went on to earn First team All Pro last season while McFadden served up the usual.
Well, to be fair, there was that one year when DMac rushed for 1157 yards. After not surpassing the 500-yard mark his first two seasons, that breakout 2010 season was just enough to renew fans' faith in the oft-injured running back and set them up for the next three seasons of disappointment. What is it about McFadden that has fans with such a constant renewable resource of faith he can suddenly find his spark? Probably just being fans. All other evidence suggests that well is dry.
Two years ago, it was the one-cut-and-go style in the zone blocking scheme that was supposed to help McFadden break out. Then last season it was switching back to power blocking that was going to do the trick. The results for both was the same - 3.3 yards per carry and playing less than three quarters of the season due to injury.
The favorite shift of focus for most true believers is in the direction of the offensive line. It means blaming the offensive line for McFadden's past struggles while having visions of open stretches of field in which he can frolic due to the possibility the Raiders having put together a much improved offensive line this season. While none of us can foretell any freeway sized running lanes this season, blaming the offensive line for McFadden's struggles last season would be hard to explain in light of Rashad Jennings' performance.
Jennings came in for McFadden last season and averaged 4.5 yards per carry - a jump of 1.2 yards per carry. To put that in perspective, that's nearly a first down every two carries for Jennings compared to nearly a first down on three carries for McFadden. Same offensive line and yet it's the difference between a first down and a punt.
The part of the story that gets many fans choked up and goose pimpled is that of the devoted man who returns to the Silver and Black and through sheer will and determination will outplay his one-year, non-guaranteed contract. It sounds very inspiring but this isn't Hollywood and performance can't be predicted based on want-to.
The only real difference here is he is much easier to cut if he gets injured - a very distinct possibility. He was in a contract year last year and has long had something to prove. Also, only deadbeats show improved effort in contract years. McFadden is by no means a deadbeat. Any suggestion McFadden wasn't playing as hard when he wasn't playing for a contract is complete nonsense. Not to mention an incredibly insulting insinuation.
Then there's the Maurice Jones-Drew factor. He will split carries with McFadden which could keep him fresh and lower the possibility of an injury. Then again, last season McFadden went down with his second injury of the year on his first carry late in his first game back and was out for another two weeks after that.
While the prospect of MJD keeping McFadden fresh/healthy may or may not actually mean anything, what very much will mean something is he will take carries away from McFadden. This may help the Raiders but it won't help McFadden have some kind of resurgence. It just means he will have fewer opportunities to improve his overall rushing numbers.
What of getting this "top ten quarterback" as Dennis Allen has said of Matt Schaub? Could adding a threat in the passing game do the trick? The Raiders didn't have one last year and that is a popular excuse for a running back struggling (even though the aforementioned Rashad Jennings didn't).
The Raiders had a big armed quarterback two years ago in Carson Palmer. He threw for over 4000 yards in 2012 - something Schaub has done three times in his career. That didn't help McFadden's numbers. That year Mike Goodson was gaining over six yards per carry until he got injured and then Marcel Reece came in and played well also. Really the only Raiders running back who was struggling was McFadden.
The best game McFadden has had the past two seasons came in week two of last season - with a running quarterback. He gained 129 yards on 19 carries in week two against the Jaguars. He had open field to run because Terrelle Pryor had run for 112 yards in the opener and the Jaguars weren't talented enough to keep an eye on both Pryor and McFadden in the read option. I don't see Matt Schaub running a successful read option any time soon.
Since we're on the subject of play calling, could offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, be the key to unlocking McFadden's inner superstar? After all, it was Hue Jackson in 2011 who did it by tailoring the Raiders' offense to fit McFadden's strengths. Could Olson do the same? He could. But he won't.
Olson is known for being flexible with his game plan and not rigidly sticking with one offense. But he specializes in quarterbacks and tailors his offense to the quarterback, not the running back. McFadden will have to fit into whatever scheme Matt Schaub is most comfortable.
Sure, some running backs have had success under Olson's offensive scheme - Steven Jackson and LeGarrette Blount come to mind -- but there are a couple major differences between those running backs and McFadden.
First off, Jackson and Blount are both big, bruising backs and that's not McFadden. Secondly, Steven Jackson had success before Olson and continued to have success after he left. For LeGarrette Blount's part, he surprised a lot of people by just sneaking over 1000 yards (1005). But he did it just once in two seasons under Olson in Tampa. It was also the only time in Olson's four seasons in Tampa a back had over 1000 yards.
So, basically if you want to convince yourself or others that McFadden is going to suddenly turn things around, you must somehow completely throw all history and logic out the window and then take your own leap of faith (preferably also out that same window).
Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Not even close.
Hope is good but don't be shocked when the result is uncomfortably familiar.