Darren McFadden is the single biggest offensive weapon the Raiders have on the roster and keeping him healthy in 2012 is vitally important to the Raiders and their playoff aspirations.
The Raiders were 4-2 in games McFadden started and finished the game in 2011. Without McFadden the Raiders were 4-6.
With a healthy McFadden in 2011 the Raiders scored 27 point per game, but without McFadden the team only scored 20 points per game.
It would appear McFadden is worth at least a touchdown per game to the Raiders as the loss of McFadden was only slightly mitigated by the addition of Carson Palmer in 2011.
Just about any and every statistic that can examined will lead to the same conclusion: the Raiders need a healthy Darren McFadden.
McFadden's injuries may be the result of tackles like this one.
There is no reason for the Raiders to allow McFadden to take a a hit or be involved in any sort of contact prior to the regular season. He's proven he can play at a high level and he has experience in the zone-blocking scheme.
"If I get hurt going hard, I can't do anything about it." -Darren McFadden
What makes McFadden so good is his style. He's a physical player. As he would put it, he "goes hard." He's a football player and it's not going to be easy for him to go half speed.
The easiest way to save McFadden is to simple not allow him to participate in contact practices or preseason games.
The Raiders can't take the risk that a defender falls on the back of McFadden's legs and re-injures his foot or aggravates the turf toe that has plagued him in two of his four NFL seasons.
The NFL is a physical sport and the running back position is one of the most physically demanding positions. Effectiveness of a running back drops with mileage and tends to sharply decline by age 30.
McFadden will be 25 when the season begins and will need to put his history of soft tissue injuries behind him. It will be tough for McFadden not to get any preseason contact because he's that type of player, but it's best to save the wear for games that matter.
Last season the Raiders were using Michael Bush to spell Darren McFadden. Bush was high quality backup and many believed him to be a luxury that would enable the Raiders to lighten McFadden's load and hopefully prevent injury.
That didn't happen as McFadden averaged 23 combined carries and receptions to Bush's 8 when both were active in 2011. In 2010, McFadden's most productive and healthy season, he averaged 19 to Bush's nine.
Dennis Allen already knows he has to spell McFadden to keep him healthy.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News recently interviewed Allen and asked him if McFadden could carry the ball 25-30 times per game and Allen answered,
"Here’s what I would say–can he run the ball 25, 30 times? Absolutely. But I also think the running back position in this league, I think you have the ability to use different people. Because those runners take such a pounding on a play-in and play-out basis.
Does he have the ability to be the lead back? Absolutely and he will be.
But we’re going to have to find ways to spell him some, too."
Sounds like Allen knows that keeping McFadden around 20 is much more ideal than 25-30.
The Raiders made a trade for Mike Goodson from the Carolina Panthers this offseason. Goodson is a running back with zone-blocking experience, but also has had ball security problems.
Goodson figures to be a big part of lightening the load for McFadden along with second-year player Taiwan Jones.
If Jones learns to find the cutback lanes afforded to him by the zone-blocking scheme and plays closer to 200 pounds in 2012 he might surpass Goodson as the primary backup.
Ideally the Raiders limit McFadden to around 20 touches with Goodson and Jones splitting the other 10.
Increasing McFadden's workload—during training camp—is another way the Raiders might keep McFadden healthy in 2012.
A big part of injury prevention during the season is offseason training. It's not that McFadden is out of shape, but added flexibility and strength of certain small muscle groups can help him avoid serious injury.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website has this information about avoiding sprains, strains and other soft-tissue injuries:
"Stress injuries can also result from poor muscle balance, lack of flexibility, or weakness in soft tissues caused by previous injuries. These injuries to the muscle, bone ligaments, and tendons may require a prolonged amount of time to heal, in spite of appropriate care."
McFadden is gaining a reputation as a slow healer and while some of that is probably genetic, some could be from inadequate training.
It will be up to new strength and conditioning coach, Al Miller, to design the perfect training program for McFadden.
Miller is a member of the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame and was NFL strength coach of the year in 2004. If any coach can design the right training program for McFadden, it's Miller.
"My goal in strength training and coaching was to win the championship each and every year, and to try and put together to proper strength, speed, flexibility, and conditioning program to raise each player's ability and guard against serious injury." - Al Miller, as quoted in a video accompanying his induction into the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame.
For a good example of what flexibility can do to prevent injury, rewind to October 24, 2011. Michael Bush barreled into Brian Dawkins knee and it buckled backwards, but Dawkins would come back into the game. Most players would be facing a season-ending injury, but Dawkins hardly missed a beat.
It's a good example of why Dawkins was still playing at a high level at age 38. If McFadden wants a long NFL career, he needs to really focus on his offseason training.
A good way to keep McFadden healthy is to find other offensive weapons that can make plays. If the Raiders can make plays in the passing game with receivers, they can lighten McFadden's load beyond what is possible with Goodson and Jones.
By making the offense more balanced the Raiders will not have to rely as much on McFadden. Additional playmakers on offense mean a more evenly distributed workload.
The Raiders are not short of potential candidates to help McFadden carry the offensive load. Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey flashed the ability to carry the offense at times in 2011. Jacoby Ford flashed this ability in 2010.
Marcel Reece and David Ausberry could also contribute as playmakers at their respective positions.
The potential is there, but the Raiders couldn't put it all together without McFadden in 2012.
Perhaps the added attention on McFadden will create opportunities for the Raiders' other players.
Splitting McFadden out wide as a receiver not only provides mismatch opportunities for the Raiders, but means McFadden will not take as much physical punishment from defensive lineman and linebackers.
McFadden is an excellent receiver and can't be covered by a linebacker and is often too physical for a thinly built defensive back.
During his four-year career McFadden has 116 receptions for 1191 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per reception.
Over 33 percent of McFadden's first downs have been through the air on just 17 percent of his total touches.
By converting a few more rushing attempts into pass routes the Raiders can reduce the wear and tear on McFadden and hopefully keep him healthy for a playoff run.
This tactic may also enable the Raiders to use McFadden as a decoy more frequently and open up other players for opportunities to make big plays.