OAKLAND, Calif. – Late in the second half of Sunday's home opener at the O.co Coliseum, reality was closing in on the Raiders.
After surprising the visiting New York Jets with a hurry-up offense that led to an opening-drive touchdown, Oakland had been stymied by Rex Ryan's defense. The Jets had scored 17 consecutive points and seemed to be getting stronger; the 61,546 fans were getting more and more subdued.
After taking a handoff from quarterback Jason Campbell(notes), McFadden slid to his left and bounced outside. In an instant, he cut upfield and accelerated into the secondary, shedding Jets safety Jim Leonhard's(notes) attempted tackle and pulling away from fast-closing cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes). Seventy yards later, McFadden was in the end zone. Two hours later, Raider Nation was in a silver-and-black dreamland, as Oakland (2-1) celebrated a 34-24 victory that ranked as one of its most significant in recent memory.
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By that point, two things were clear to the football world: The Raiders are legitimate contenders that have the talent to compete with the NFL's most highly regarded teams, and McFadden – the league's top running back of this young season – is closing in on being the best, period.
"Darren's the best running back in the league," Raiders fullback Marcel Reece(notes) said after the most productive day (19 carries, 171 yards, two touchdowns) of McFadden's four-year career. "I stand by him. I love him. Whatever this team needs him to do, he can do it, and he will do it. That's why we're becoming the offensive force that we are."
I'm not quite ready to declare McFadden the best – that distinction still belongs to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson – but after watching the Titans' Chris Johnson struggle through his third consecutive no-impact performance of 2011, I'd say No. 20 is No. 2 with a bullet.
If fantasy leagues held re-drafts today, McFadden would go No. 1 overall in many of them: He leads the NFL with 393 rushing yards and has added 84 receiving yards on 11 catches.
And though "Run DMC" was a collegiate star at Arkansas who went fourth overall in the 2008 NFL draft, the hype surrounding his emergence still seems somewhat subdued by NFL standards.
"You see a guy that big, strong, powerful and fast, and it seems strange to say, but even though he's that good he's still underrated," says Buffalo Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes), whose team scored a thrilling 38-35 victory over the Raiders in Week 2. "He's one of the best running backs in the league, hands down."
Raiders coach Hue Jackson believes McFadden is "one of the best players in the league, period." But before Jackson arrived in Oakland as former coach Tom Cable's offensive coordinator in 2010, the buzz surrounding McFadden was mostly bad.
For all the excitement he generated before the '08 draft, a year after Peterson's phenomenal rookie season, McFadden fell far short of expectations. His first two seasons were injury-plagued and unproductive, and he had trouble with fumbles, shedding defenders and keeping his footing.
Shortly after joining Cable's staff, Jackson called McFadden into his office and asked the young back what kind of plays he liked to run. A lot of opposing defenders around the league wish Jackson hadn't. "It's great," McFadden says. "As a running back, you want to be able to try to do things you know you like doing."
He has since gone from bust to beast. McFadden, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry while running for 1,157 yards in 2010, impacts defenses in ways that transcend statistics. As Merriman points out, teams are so concerned with holding the edges to prevent McFadden from bouncing outside that the pass rush is inevitably weakened. Campbell has been sacked only twice for the season, including once by the Jets, who allowed more rushing yards (234) Sunday than they had in any game since Ryan took over as coach in 2009.
On Sunday, McFadden also gashed the Jets (2-1) on several quick-hitting inside runs – and, on one key third-quarter play, he showed off his improvisational skills. With the score tied at 17 and the ball at the 50-yard line, Campbell lined up in the shotgun and gave a quick handoff to McFadden on his right. The play was designed to be a halfback option pass back to Campbell on the left side, but when McFadden dropped back and saw the quarterback was covered, he swept back to his left and burst downfield, repeatedly pumping the ball as if to throw en route to a 27-yard gain.
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Jackson followed that with another trick play, a Campbell-to-McFadden-to-Denarius Moore(notes) reverse that the rookie receiver – a fifth-round draft pick who looks like a star in the making – carried all the way into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
When Cromartie fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Raiders recovered at the Jets' 13, Jackson went right back to McFadden, whose 12-yard blast off left tackle set up power back Michael Bush's(notes) scoring run that put Oakland firmly in control of the game.
While Bush is the designated bulldozer, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound McFadden can also be an intimidating sight for defenders. As Oakland's radio play-by-play announcer, Greg ("Touchdown Raaaaiiiddddeerrrssss!") Papa said of McFadden's 70-yarder, "Once I saw him flash into the open field, I thought, 'No one's gonna catch him, and no one wants to.' "
For that and many other reasons, Jackson regards McFadden as the ideal back for his offense.
"I'll take my guy over anyone," the rookie coach said Sunday night, several hours after his first home victory. "Anytime, any place, anywhere, against anyone. That's the kind of faith I have in him. He's the one I want to roll with."
And what are McFadden's thoughts on being regarded as one of the league's best backs, if not the best?
"I believe it," he said. "I try to go out there and show it every Sunday on the field."
Now he can count the Jets among the true believers, a group that is growing by the game.
OK, so who's fired up about that Detroit Lions-Buffalo Bills Super Bowl in Indianapolis on Feb. 5? Though such a matchup might not sound ideal from a marketing perspective – as the NFL Network's Kara Henderson put it so suitably Sunday night, it would take a whole lot of Jim Irsay scavenger hunts on Twitter to unload tickets to that game – it would be terrific for those who adore all things underdog. Detroit and Buffalo, after all, share the NFL's longest postseason drought, each having last made the playoffs in 1999. On Sunday, both the Lions and Bills remained undefeated in dramatic fashion, rallying from big deficits to pull out victories in settings in which their franchise has grown accustomed to failing in recent years. For Detroit, which fought its way out of a 20-point hole against the Vikings at the Metrodome, its 26-23 overtime victory was its first in Minnesota since 1997, ending a 13-game road losing streak to the Vikes. The Bills, who last Sunday trailed the Raiders 21-3 before coming back to win, this time went down 21-0 to the Patriots, a team that had beaten them 15 times in a row. "It wasn't like we were getting dominated, though," Merriman said Sunday night. "We all understood that we needed to play better, and we did." Buffalo proceeded to intercept Pats quarterback Tom Brady(notes) four times – as many picks as he threw during the entire 2010 regular season – while its trio of underpaid offensive standouts (quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes), halfback Fred Jackson(notes), wideout Stevie Johnson(notes)) came up big in a 34-31 triumph. A couple of weeks ago Merriman was cherishing his team's relative anonymity; he acknowledged after Sunday's game that things are about to change. "We're going to have the notoriety now," he said. "Teams are not going to take us lightly. At first, I was a little unsure if guys here could handle that, but now I'm not concerned. I think they can."… The league's only other 3-0 team (the 2-0 Redskins have a tough game at Dallas on Monday night) also happens to be its reigning champion: the Packers stormed to an impressive 27-17 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field, with tight end Jermichael Finley(notes) catching three Aaron Rodgers(notes) touchdown passes. He wasn't the only one seeing triple – Ravens rookie wideout Torrey Smith(notes) caught his first three NFL passes, all for TDs, in the first quarter of a 37-7 blowout of the Rams in St. Louis. If Smith stays even remotely that dangerous the rest of the way, Baltimore could finally have enough offensive firepower to complement its punishing defense. … Congratulations to all the Bengals fans who stayed away from Sunday's home opener at Paul Brown Stadium (the crowd of 43,363 marked the franchise's smallest for a home opener in 30 years) – you made a wise decision. Cincy's 13-8 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers was worth the price of admission only to those who snuck in or got comped. I'd be more specific, but I've already tried to wipe the game from my memory. … If you want some insight into Rex Grossman's(notes) unlikely resurfacing as a productive NFL starter, check out this NFL.com feature by freshly hired Jeff Darlington – the writer and Redskins quarterback go back to their days as University of Florida students. … Finally, on a much more somber note, here's a very moving story by the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Jeff Duncan on iconic ex-Saints special teamer Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The rush of comfort, euphoria, impermanence and majesty experienced while driving my sleeping teenage daughter to a faraway soccer field as the first shards of burnt-orange daylight appeared over the horizon Sunday, Peet's iced tea surged through my being and a looming all-nighter held no consequence. 2)
2. Why NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith signed off on a reported side agreement that appears to allow NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to discipline eight players he regards as repeat offenders for personal-conduct violations which occurred during the lockout. As I reported Thursday, one of those eight players, Bengals halfback Cedric Benson(notes), was notified that he faces a three-game suspension, pending Tuesday's appeal to Goodell. While many of you undoubtedly care most about the potential impact to your respective fantasy teams and leagues, to me it is a much weightier and significant issue. I've made my thoughts clear on why I believe this is a ridiculous premise that the union should be fighting with all its might – realistically, the NFLPA should have fought for a better resolution before the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified – and I've heard from numerous players who share that view. I'm not surprised that Benson has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board given that, among other things, he wasn't informed of the aforementioned side deal which subjected him to the suspension. And I wouldn't be surprised if Benson also challenges Goodell's ruling in the form of a grievance or lawsuit, as I believe he has a good case.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Wait, Corey Peters(notes) – you didn't really fall for the fake-hard-count-draw-'em-offsides trick, did you? Oh yes, I believe you did – and it killed any chance of a Falcons comeback in Sunday's 16-13 defeat to the Bucs in Tampa. To be fair, the second-year defensive tackle's unconscionable gaffe on a fourth-and-1 play with 1:49 remaining was far from Atlanta's only issue. Coming off a promising 35-31 victory over the Eagles in Week 2, the Falcons' lack of offensive rhythm persisted, with everything from the offensive line's pass protection to Michael Turner's(notes) running to coordinator Mike Mularkey's decidedly substandard play-calling. Don't be fooled by the numbers put up by quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) or receivers Roddy White(notes) and Julio Jones(notes) – until the fourth quarter when, as in the Philly game, they shifted largely to a no-huddle attack in which Ryan called the plays, the Falcons were a mess offensively. Of Atlanta's first eight drives against Tampa Bay, three ended in punts, three were killed by turnovers, one featured a failed fourth-down conversion, and one netted a field goal. For a team with as much talent at the skill positions as the Falcons, that's an embarrassment. On a positive note – I guess – Atlanta nearly had a chance to steal Sunday's game with a last-minute drive. Alas, it never happened, because of the aforementioned offsides infraction. When Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) went to the line on fourth-and-inches from the Falcons' 44, Peters and his teammates should have been well aware that the hard count was a distinct strategic possibility. I remember how hard I laughed when then-Rams tackle Kyle Turley referred to defensive linemen as "geraniums" in a 2003 Sports Illustrated story, and Peters appeared to be in full bloom on Sunday when he jumped across the line and gave the Bucs a game-killing first down in a situation when Freeman had no intention of snapping the ball. Bad bad bad bad bad bad bad.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Played his ass off!"
– Text Sunday evening from Browns tackle Joe Thomas(notes), referring to second-year quarterback Colt McCoy(notes), who led Cleveland on a game-winning drive to beat the Dolphins 17-16.
"I'll tell you the thing I like about him most, he studies and works his butt off during the week. He's smarter than people give him credit for."
– Direct message from Panthers center Ryan Kalil(notes), after rookie quarterback Cam Newton(notes) recorded his first pro victory, a 16-10 triumph over the Jaguars.
- Rex Ryan