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.