What Went Wrong: McFadden

Patrick Daugherty
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If only.

These two words have defined Darren McFadden since he came into the league as the No. 4 pick of the 2008 draft.

If only he could stay healthy.

If only he were on a better team.

If only he could be utilized properly.

If we were to start a “What Went Wrong” Hall-of-Fame, DMC would be a charter member. He’d get 98.8 percent of the vote on his first ballot — the Tom Seaver of “what ifs.”

2012 brought a new “if only” to the party — if only the Raiders had stuck with a power-blocking scheme. Of course, “if only he could stay healthy” remained a recurring theme, but nothing defined DMC’s 2012 quite like the Raiders’ failed dalliance with the ZBS.

Was it the sole culprit behind DMC’s descent into the 3.3 yards per carry abyss? No. But journeyman OC Greg Knapp’s foolhardy and stubborn decision to thrust his preferred manner of line play onto the Raiders was unquestionably the main reason McFadden never got going for a team that went nowhere fast.

What Went Wrong

The question is why was Knapp’s ZBS such a disaster? The short answer: McFadden didn’t fit it. The long answer?

On paper, McFadden should be a fit for any system. An imposing 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, McFadden ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the 2008 Combine. That was faster than the fastest wideout that year (4.35 by DeSean Jackson), and faster than this year’s prospect du jour, Tavon Austin (4.34).

McFadden was — and is — a uniquely gifted athlete. The godfather of the mid-2000s’ Wildcat obsession (or the single-wing revival, if you will), McFadden rushed for an eye-popping 3,477 yards and 30 touchdowns his final two years at Arkansas, tacking on seven passing scores for good measure. He was an impossible-to-defense movable chess piece, the kind of player who’s become all the rage in the era of Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb.

Only then he floundered his first two seasons in the NFL, verging on “massive bust” status. DMC averaged just 3.94 yards over his first 217 pro carries. Injuries were undoubtedly the primary reason, but not far behind was the Raiders’ zone-blocking scheme.

For all McFadden’s athleticism — almost anyone would tell you he’s one of the most naturally-gifted athletes to come into the NFL since the dawn of the 21st century — he’s never had the patience for a zone-blocking scheme. In the ZBS, runners follow linemen. They wait for their blockers to move the pile laterally, creating running lanes for patient runners to exploit. They go left and right before going north and south.  

That’s just not McFadden’s style, who for all his athletic prowess prefers to operate like a true power back, seeing the hole and hitting the hole. DMC likes to make one cut and get up field. He doesn’t like to read blocks. It’s this interfusion of aggression, power and athleticism that led him to an elite 5.3 yards per carry the two years Hue Jackson was employing a power-blocking scheme and calling the Raiders’ plays.  

McFadden confirmed as much in an interview earlier this month. "I am the type of guy who likes to go downhill, make a cut and go; that's my thing," McFadden said as he explained his struggles in the ZBS. Why the Raiders didn’t heed this obvious truth last season will remain a mystery forever more.

There were other factors, of course. McFadden was coming off a devastating 2011 Lisfranc fracture, and missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. His also received poor blocking from his interior line (and his tackles). Both of the Raiders’ guards graded out negatively in Pro Football Focus’ ratings, while C Stefen Wisniewski rated just 17th overall among middle men. Wisniewski’s grade in run blocking was an unimpressive -0.1.

But McFadden’s shoddy line play almost certainly worked in concert with his own failure to adapt to the ZBS — again — while his athleticism was rarely questioned. Reports out of OTAs and training camp had him looking as spry and explosive as ever.       

So while any disaster has mitigating circumstances, there is always a primary cause. With McFadden last season, it was his arranged marriage with Knapp’s scheme. The Raiders tacitly admitted as much when they fired Knapp after less than a year on the job, and have since openly admitted the experiment was an exercise in futility from the get go.

None of this changes the grisly details. McFadden averaged more than five yards per carry just once in 12 games last season. More than 4.0 only twice. Astoundingly, McFadden averaged more than 3.0 yards per carry all of four times in 2012. This, after he averaged 5.3 in 20 games between 2010-11. 9.1 percent of his yards came on one carry in Week 3. Only four of his 216 totes gained more than 20 yards. Just 33 produced first downs.

The Raiders messed with success, and paid the ultimate price. They’ve claimed they learned from that mistake. Fantasy owners can only hope.    

On Film

Put simply: McFadden had nowhere to go, and when he did, he didn’t see it. No one along the Raiders’ line blocked well. Oakland graded out as the third-worst run-blocking team in the league in Pro Football Focus’ ratings, and it was easy to see why on film. Enemy tacklers penetrated at will. McFadden didn’t help matters by seemingly guessing which hole to hit on any given play. The line would push left, and McFadden would break right.

McFadden never grasped the Raiders’ new blocking principles, but even when he did make the right read, he was rewarded with a swarm of defenders. Almost without fail, McFadden either wouldn’t see the hole, or it wouldn’t develop in the first place.

It translated into one of the league’s most dynamic open-field talents finding himself constantly surrounded by bodies. His teammates, his opponents, heck, even the refs. DMC had no space to operate, and rarely found himself outside the constraints of the line of scrimmage. He was a caged bird instead of a fearsome predator.       

When McFadden patiently read his blockers and waited for running lanes to develop, he got hit for a loss. When he didn’t, he’d eke out a short gain. On the few occasions he found himself out in space, either via a sweep or a rare crease, he was still the beastly talent we came to know and love in 2010-11. Plays took too long to develop, or McFadden wouldn’t recognize them when they did.

What Could Still Go Right

The Raiders know they made a grave mistake last season. They’ve spent the offseason telling anyone who will listen. They’ve looked to their sins. “(McFadden’s) most effective years have been in a downhill, power scheme,” coach Dennis Allen admitted at the Owner’s Meetings. “That's why Greg Olson and Tony Sparano are here."

Olson and Sparano, of course, are the Raiders’ new offensive coordinator and OL coach, respectively. What kind of blocking scheme have they spent the offseason espousing? Power.

"A year ago, they weren't sure about that zone scheme," Olson said in February, putting it lightly. "After a year of having to look at it, maybe (McFadden) is a downhill runner. So we'll get back to some of the gap schemes and things he does well.”

Allen elaborated on that thought earlier in the winter. “That’s one of the things (we’re) really going to look at. ... The things that Darren McFadden does really well, and we’re going to try to ask him to do those things as much as possible, limit the times that we ask him to do some of the things that he may not be as good at,” Allen bluntly told the Contra Costa Times. “All of us as players have strengths and weaknesses, and we want to try to play to our best players’ strengths as much as possible.”

But Allen and Company have pledged to go beyond simply putting McFadden back into his preferred system, promising he’ll be the centerpiece of an offense that threw a preposterous 629 times last season. That was more than Green Bay, Denver and Atlanta, among other teams.

With unproven Matt Flynn under center and one of the league’s rawest receiver corps, they really have no choice. But as any long-time fantasy player knows, it’s never as easy as simply trusting McFadden. That’s because his body rarely cooperates. So what’s he saying this offseason? That he’s 100 percent healthy, and raring to go. "I know what I can do," McFadden said. "I do feel like I am still a top-five back."

For his part, GM Reggie McKenzie insists McFadden is as “tough as they come,” and attributes his winding injury history to little more than bad luck. DMC agrees. “(I’m) always going hard. I am not falling off the bench or anything." That’s probably wishful for thinking for a player who’s missed 23 games in five seasons, but a brave face is better than a scared one.

It doesn’t hurt that McFadden is still four months shy of his 25th birthday, and will be playing for a new contract in 2013. Over-the-hill (free agent) LG Cooper Carlisle is likely to be replaced by 2012 third-rounder Tony Bergstrom.

The Raiders have admitted they have a problem, and have vowed to correct it. After foolishly trying to force a system on their best player, they’re now molding their system to the player. Every party involved should have sufficient motivation. McFadden wants to prove he’s not washed up at just a quarter of a century old, while Allen and McKenzie want to save their jobs.

McFadden might not be surrounded by blue-chip talent, but he will be in a position to succeed this season. That’s more than can be said for his 2012. Now the trick will be staying healthy and doing it.

Our Best Guess For 2013

It’s not a bold statement to say that McFadden could easily bounce-back in 2013. We’ve laid out his youth and bonafides in excruciating detail.

But we’ve also established than even when McFadden is set up for success, he’s made a habit of failing. Maybe his injuries really have been fluky, but there’s no debating he’s suffered an endless stream of them, typically to his lower-body. That’s a hard way to make a living for a player whose fortunes live and die with his feet.

And even though McFadden is back in his preferred scheme, Greg Olson and Tony Sparano aren’t exactly Hue Jackson. For all his “L'enfant terrible” tendencies, Jackson is a gifted play-caller who not only understood what made DMC tick, but made him tick. Olson? He’s been fired each of the past two years. Sparano? Let’s just say he introduced the world to the “Cro Package.”

We know why McFadden failed in 2012, but the grim truth is, if you’ve drafted him each of the past five years, there’s only season (2010) you came away happy with. The reasons have varied, but the outcomes really haven’t. For all his talent, disappointment remains McFadden’s signature skill.

Maybe the return to a power-blocking scheme will put DMC back on an upward trajectory. Maybe he’ll finally justify why some thought he was worthy of the No. 1 pick in 2008. But with McFadden, believing should no longer be tied to “if only,” but seeing.

McFadden may become a true superstar this season, but the safer assumption is that we’ll be back for “What Went Wrong, Darren McFadden: The Sequel” this time next year.