Why a Darren McFadden Rebound Is the Key to the Oakland Raiders 2013 Season

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Why a Darren McFadden Rebound Is the Key to the Oakland Raiders 2013 Season
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Fans, fantasy footballers and Oakland’s front office are either frustrated or have already jumped off the  Darren McFadden bandwagon without a life vest.

The Raiders don’t have much choice but to let McFadden carry a talent-deprived roster across murky waters in 2013. Three unproven quarterbacks and a lack of a No.1 receiver virtually guarantees McFadden is the only hope of the Raiders have of staying afloat in the AFC West.

Either McFadden will take the Raiders where they want to go or they will sink to the bottom of standings.

Entering his contract year, McFadden has to prove that he can stay healthy, but health alone isn’t going to be enough. McFadden was healthy for 12 games last season, but proved to be a fish out of water in Greg Knapp’s zone-blocking scheme, managing a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.

The immensely talented running back has just one season with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his five-year career. McFadden is also averaging nearly five missed games per season and has never touched the ball more than 270 times in any one year.

To put that in perspective, 15 running backs had more than 270 touches in 2012, and 20 had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Only one of those players didn’t play in at least 14 games.

 

Significant Impact

When McFadden is at his best, he’s one of the best running backs in the league. Having a productive McFadden also has a profoundly positive impact on offense, which is something the Raiders need to replicate in 2013 if they want to be competitive.

Under the guidance of offensive coordinator/head coach Hue Jackson, McFadden averaged 5.3 yards per carry from 2010-2011. Only Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller and Jamaal Charles averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry last season.

McFadden is also a great receiver and only a few players averaged more yards from scrimmage per game than McFadden when Jackson was calling the plays. A healthy and productive McFadden should equal a productive offense in Oakland if history is our guide.

McFadden’s yardage output per game has a direct impact on the output of Oakland’s offense. In four out of the McFadden's five years, the Raiders yardage output has followed the same track as McFadden’s yardage output. In contrast, the passing offense had an inverse relationship with the passing output in two out of the five years, both of which were under the guidance of offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

The lone exception to this trend was in 2011, when McFadden missed nine games. It would make sense that Oakland’s offense wasn’t impacted as much by McFadden when he missed the more than half the season.

Data via the NFL Game Statistics Database.

It’s also worth noting that Jackson pulled out all the stops with McFadden injured, using six different personnel groupings over five percent of the time in 2011. Jackson used just three groupings over five percent of the time in 2010 and Knapp used four that much in 2012.

Jackson used two groupings without a tight end a combined 146 times in 2011. Either the Raiders used two running backs and three wide receivers or one running back and four wide receivers, presumably to help quarterback Carson Palmer. Knapp only used those grouping 25 times in 2012, even though McFadden wasn’t productive.

Last season was actually the first that the Raiders points per game average didn’t track with McFadden’s yards-per-touch average, meaning the Raiders scoring has been impacted by McFadden’s production for four of the last five seasons.

We also know the Raiders scored an average of 24.0 points per game over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, during which McFadden averaging 5.3 yards per carry. With McFadden healthy for 13 games and racking up 1,664 yards from scrimmage, the Raiders averaged 25.6 points per game.

Raiders points per game with and without McFadden.

The Raiders averaged just 18.1 points per game in 2012. That number was worse in 2008 and 2009, when McFadden averaged a combined 3.6 yards per carry. While many people will point to the zone-blocking scheme as having cost the Raiders a touchdown per game, that is bit too simplistic.

The Raiders averaged just 0.8 fewer points per game without McFadden in 2010 and in 2011, versus when he was in the lineup those two seasons, meaning that they were able to get equal nearly equal production with or without their star back. But in every other year of McFadden’s career, he’s been worth at least 2.8 points per game to the Raiders.

The Raiders will not have the luxury of Palmer at quarterback in 2013, so McFadden has to produce like he did in 2010 or things could get ugly.  The Raiders simply can’t rely on getting more production out of quarterback Matt Flynn than what they received from Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski in 2010.

 

Zone Blocking and Personnel Usage

Credit the Raiders for dumping the zone-blocking scheme, even if they didn’t realize McFadden was a bad fit initially. McFadden has now been in a zone-blocking scheme for three years of his career, and he has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry compared to 5.3 yards per carry in the two years he has been in a man-blocking scheme.

McFadden is certainly happy to see the return in 2013 of a system that fits his abilities, but the blocking strategy isn’t a magical cure to his struggles. A lot of people don’t realize that the Raiders actually went away from zone runs for McFadden late in the 2012 season, but didn’t see any better results.

New offensive coordinator Greg Olson needs to put his stamp on the offense, and it will be interesting to see how he builds the attack around McFadden. Olson was last an offensive coordinator in 2011 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he used a lot more 11 personnel groupings (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) than either Knapp or Jackson did with the Raiders the last three seasons.

Data via the NFL Game Statistics Database.

Like the rest of the league, Olson has gradually phased out the use of two tight ends in favor of three receivers, but there are a few noticeable departures from the trend. Olson was much more likely to use 21 personnel when he had running backs LaGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams in 2010, and he used more 12 personnel in 2009 in which tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. was basically a wide receiver.

Olson’s willingness to alter his offense for his personnel should benefit McFadden and versatile fullback Marcel Reece. Looking back, Olson has definitely squeezed every ounce of production out of his players.

Blount averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his two years under Olson, with 1,950 yards from scrimmage. Winslow averaged 73 catches for 792 yards and four touchdowns in three years under Olson. Both Blount and Winslow were replaced in Tampa Bay last year.

 

Projection

At this point, you would be crazy to expect anything more than 12 games out of McFadden. If you throw out 2011, McFadden has actually been pretty consistent in terms of durability, playing in 12 or 13 games during the other four years of his career.

Maybe the Raiders will catch lightning in a bottle and McFadden will stay healthy for 16 games, but his injury history certainly seems to be working against him.  The Raiders would be lucky to get more than 13 games.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Very few of Darren McFadden's injuries have been due to hard contact.

It would be one thing if McFadden’s injuries were directly related to his hard-nosed running style, but most of them have been soft tissue injuries to his lower body—the types of injuries that rarely have to do with hard contact.

The biggest question is how McFadden will rebound from the debacle of 2012. Everyone will trumpet the departure of the zone-blocking scheme and ignore the fact that McFadden was coming off a serious foot injury last year.

If we are being honest, McFadden’s best years may already be behind him.

However, with so many question marks for the Raiders on offense, McFadden still may top the 270 touches he had in 2010. Expect McFadden to improve across the board but to fall short of the numbers he had in the man-blocking scheme in 2010-2011.

A reasonable prediction in 2013 for McFadden 12 games and 220 carries. McFadden had 216 carries in 12 games in 2012 and should see his workload increase slightly without Palmer under center. The Raiders will have to rush a little more help their unproven quarterbacks.

Assuming he carries the ball 220 times, McFadden should be able to gain right around 4.5 yards per carry, which is his average over the past three seasons (his career average is 4.3). That would put him right around 1,000 rushing yards on the season, with the potential to break 1,200 yards if he can stay healthy for 16 games.

McFadden is also a very good receiver and has averaged 3.4 receptions per game the last three years. In 12 games, McFadden should be able to catch 40 passes. The tricky part is figuring out what kind of yardage McFadden might be able to gain through the air.

Over or Under 1,000 yards rushing and 350 receiving for McFadden in 2013?

Submit Vote vote to see results

McFadden is averaging about 8.5 yards per catch the last three years (9.2 in his career), which is within range of what can be expected from a running back. If McFadden can manage 40 receptions and each one goes for 8.5 yards, he’d end up right around 350 yards receiving.

That is 1,350 yards combined rushing and receiving for McFadden in just 12 games.

As always, the hardest number to predict is touchdowns. Still, it’s reasonable to go on his per games averages over the past three years to get a projection for 2013. McFadden’s touchdown rate from 2010-2011 was 0.75 game and 0.25 per game in 2012.  If we split the difference, that’s six touchdowns in 12 games.

Even with a drop off in yards per carry and per reception compared to those numbers in 2010 and 2011, McFadden should be a very productive running back for the Raiders. If McFadden can stay healthy, he still has the potential to be one of the best running backs in the league.

It’s tough to know how things are going to come together, but McFadden’s return to form gives the Raiders a chance to be respectable in 2013. The Raiders were 10-10 when McFadden played from 2010-2011 and 4-8 in 2012, which is a winning percentage of roughly 44 percent.

If McFadden plays in 12 games, that’s five wins. If he plays 16 games, that’s seven wins. You just have to decide if you think the Raiders could win without McFadden and how many games he’ll be healthy.

As long as the Raiders avoid the disaster of McFadden going down with an injury early, they have a shot at six wins.  Anything beyond six wins would be the result of an improved defense or a surprisingly competent passing game. 

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