Oakland’s preseason kicked off Thursday night against Dallas, an unremarkable game for the first 10 minutes. Middling along as preseason games tend to do, the Raiders and Cowboys played to an uneventful 7-3 score, at which point Oakland made a key substitution.
With five minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Raiders inserted Darren McFadden into the lineup, and he immediately jolted the Oakland Coliseum to life.
Playing at a different speed than the other 21 players on the field, McFadden turned a simple handoff into an electric 13-yard carry, instantly melting away any lingering training camp malaise.
On the next drive, the Raiders' 2008 first-round pick ran around the left side as though he were shot from a cannon, breaking a 45-yard run that took him from second base to left field on Oakland's makeshift baseball/football pitch.
And just like that, a worthy opponent emerged to challenge Jahvid Best for the title of best Bay Area running back.
It was only the first game of the preseason, and it was only two carries, but McFadden’s Thursday night effort is still reason for excitement in the East Bay. Dallas' defense may not have been in midseason form, but McFadden wasn’t exactly running against a cover band.
With his two lightning-quick runs, McFadden kick-started the 2009 season and demonstrated that no player on either team was more prepared for his return to the gridiron. That McFadden is running with the vigor of an undrafted rookie rather than a first-round bonus baby who is a great sign for Oakland.
McFadden was an all-world tailback in college, but injuries forced him to sit out half of his 2008 rookie campaign. He even looked slower last year, running in the Raiders' black socks rather than the customary high whites he sported in college.
But it took only two carries Thursday night to refresh the image of the real Darren McFadden, the one who struck fear in the hearts of SEC giants.
The Arkansas McFadden was faster than everyone opposing defenses threw at him, and he was stronger than most of them too. Watching him run in college was like watching Super Mario run around after picking up the star.
McFadden is also the rare star whose backups thrive in his wake. Felix Jones was able to parlay his success as McFadden's sidekick into a first-round contract last year, and Justin Fargas should see similar success spelling the second-year back this season.
The incumbent starter in Oakland, Fargas has proven to be solid if unspectacular as a No. 1 option. Over the past two seasons, Fargas has averaged 931 yards and three touchdowns on 4.2 yards per carry.
Decent numbers, but no one will ever confuse Fargas for a game-changing runner. McFadden is stronger, faster, and more talented, a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball. Players like that don't come around very often in the NFL.
It’s the reason why there's still so much interest around the league in Michael Vick, why teams keep signing T.O., why Reggie Bush will always be drafted too high in fantasy football leagues, and it’s the reason Tony D'Amato brought Willie Beamen with him to Albuquerque.
Speed isn't a coachable quality, and it's not easy to find.
That McFadden’s 45-yard dash landed him in left field is only fitting, given that he burst through the hole with quickness that would have made Rickey Henderson proud. By the time he was eventually wrestled to the turf, Raiders fans were already scanning the Chargers' depth chart for defenders capable of catching McFadden in the open field (it's all on you, Antonio Cromartie).
Opposing defenses will be keying in on McFadden’s speed all year, creating more room for Oakland's receivers to operate. That’s just the advantage the Raiders need to take pressure off of their young quarterback and dangerously inexperienced wideouts (Chaz "Just" Schilens and Darrius "Cal State Hayward-East Bay" have a combined fifteen NFL receptions).
With so little familiarity on offense, the Raiders don’t just need to get McFadden the ball; they need to marry him to it.
According to local reports, Tom Cable is already close to announcing McFadden’s status as a starter. But if it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll start, why not just announce it now?
Creating a spirit of competition at training camp is one thing, but there’s no denying that McFadden is the best running back on the team. If the Raiders are worried about their young star getting hurt again, then simply name him the starter and limit his preseason carries.
Even Cable himself seems to be getting tense over the decision.
It’s time for Oakland to promote Darren McFadden—before anyone else gets hurt.
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