Darren McFadden is the most important player on the Raiders this season. If they have any shot to make the postseason, McFadden must carry them.
That's because the Raiders' defense has at least eight new starters and the passing game has more holes than Swiss cheese. The Raiders have no wide receivers to scare opposing cornerbacks, and almost zero experience at tight end and quarterback. Name an NFL roster with more question marks at quarterback than the Raiders.
The three quarterbacks – Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson – have three measly NFL starts between them. None of them can carry an offense right now. They need a running game.
If McFadden can establish himself as a reliable running back, he will open up the offense for everyone else. Flynn, the starting quarterback, could manage the game and limit turnovers, like Alex Smith did for the 49ers in 2011 when they won 13 regular-season games.
McFadden has the talent to lead the Raiders' offense. At his best, he's a violent runner who has great acceleration and home-run speed. He's a threat to take it the distance from anywhere on the field, and he can catch passes. If he can stay healthy he could lead the Raiders in rushing and receiving, but he never has stayed healthy for a full season in the NFL. There's a reason for that.
"He's got bird legs," said a former longtime NFL assistant coach who requested anonymity. "He's too spindly. I don't like his lower body. A running back takes a pounding on his lower torso. A running back has to be stoutly built from the waist down to be able to withstand the pounding he is going to take."
Since the Raiders drafted McFadden with the fourth pick in 2008, he has injured his ankle, foot, knee and toe and has missed 23 games, almost five per season. He turns 26 in August and he's entering the final year of his contract.
"If he had a bunch of upper body injuries, then you would say he might be running too upright," said the former NFL assistant coach. "But most of his injuries are from the waist down. He almost has more of a scat-back kind of a build in the lower torso than a prototypical running back's build with the quads, the calves and the kind of lower body that can withstand punishment."
The Raiders aren't going to use McFadden as a scat-back. They're going to use him as a featured back and feed him the ball until he breaks down. If by some miracle he doesn't break down, he should have the best season of his career and earn a long-term contract extension from the Raiders.
New offensive coordinator Greg Olson has brought back the power running scheme McFadden ran under Tom Cable in 2010 and 2011. Those two seasons, McFadden averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That's elite. But he also missed 12 of the 32 games.
"Now that McFadden is back to the power running game, he's going to be running between the tackles," said the former NFL assistant coach. "You're going to have a lot of helmets banging on your legs when you're running between the tackles."
That doesn't bode well for McFadden's durability this season.