JaMarcus Russell and Darrius Heyward-Bey have dominated the offseason headlines much in the way the Oakland Raiders hope they will eventually dominate defenses. But it could be the first round pick taken between Russell and Heyward-Bey that gives Oakland the edge in 2009.
Darren McFadden is set to show the world the kind of production he only managed in spurts last year while battling injuries. With a custom shoe to protect his toe, having McFadden healthy could be the most significant change in the Raiders' play calling.
The objective is simple: Get McFadden running on the edges.
The vast majority of his big plays in 2008 were from runs off tackle, pitches, screens, and swing patterns. His dominating performance in Week Two against Kansas City was a tantalizing glimpse of his potential before his injury held him back the rest of the year. But it was getting McFadden to the outside that led to his breakout game.
* His 50-yard run down the left side was a spread shotgun look to get him in space between the left guard and tackle with Zach Miller downfield in the second level. (For now, ignore his inexplicable ramrod straight running in the open field that got him caught; he'll learn from that mistake.)
* He finished off the drive on a sweep to the right side with that diving reach into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
McFadden brings the knockout punch to the running back trio behind Russell. If Russell is to succeed and grow as a quarterback, it will be heavily dependent on the running game taking the pressure off him.
Pounding the ball with Justin Fargas and Michael Bush will be an essential part of that plan.
But Tom Cable will have to adjust his play calling to focus on utilizing McFadden's talents in space. If McFadden gets even one step on defenders, he is always capable of breaking out a big play. Once McFadden strings together a couple plays, then the play-action passing game opens up for Russell to fire his cannon arm.
That's when Cable can call on Heyward-Bey to breeze by the secondary for that deep pass down the field.
So before the dreams of Russell to Heyward-Bey start to take over, don't forget that there's a home run in the backfield, too. Especially with his experience, however limited, McFadden is ready to contribute right now. There is no waiting needed for him to live up to his potential.
One obstacle in this plan is the consistency of the offensive line. The run blocking has generally been solid in the zone blocking scheme, but the line will have to do a better job at the second level to really spring McFadden free.
However, there's a new, but old, bodyguard in town to help.
Raider Nation should be ecstatic that Lorenzo Neal is now blocking for them instead of against them. Neal has lived up to the nature of his fullback position and is playing up the selfless role of being a mentor and leader. But his lead blocking ability will be just as valuable as his locker room presence. Even at 38 years old, he almost helped Le'Ron McClain get to 1,000 yards in Baltimore.
Imagine what McFadden, Fargas, and Bush could do.
Neal can be that extra blocker to hit the closing linebacker or safety to make sure McFadden can only see the end zone as he runs up the sideline. Go back to McFadden's touchdown against the Chiefs in Week Two on that sweep. If you watch the replay, you can see that RT Cornell Green and FB Justin Griffith failed to even touch a defender while blocking.
Neal is savvy enough to get that one block and allow McFadden to get in the end zone without needing to dive and stretch out for the pylon.
Not to be overlooked is Neal's impact in the play-action game if the Raiders can get McFadden going. Neal can hold up defenders in the pocket to give Russell that extra second to pass that he hasn't had. Of course, it will still come down to Russell improving his accuracy and making the throws, but he'll need every extra bit of help he can get.
So Tom Cable, if there's anything you can actually learn from Lane Kiffin, it's his plan for Darren McFadden. Kiffin originally planned to swing McFadden outside and have him catching passes all along. But he was out of town before he could use that plan with a healthy McFadden, and Cable must capitalize on this chance to follow through.
Even though there's technically nothing new about trying to use McFadden, it could be just the change needed to jump-start the offense.