The raw win-loss numbers suggest that the Oakland Raiders are no worse off with star tailback Darren McFadden out of the lineup than in it.
Since choosing McFadden with the fourth overall selection in the 2008 draft, after all, Oakland is 13-19 when the former Arkansas standout has started and, you guessed it, 13-19 when he hasn’t.
But as history has indicated, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And while the NFL pays so much attention to the last of that unholy trio, the first two are equally important, if not more so.
Certainly the current Raiders’ football leadership agrees that the notion the retooled team doesn’t require McFadden to be both healthy and productive again to step up from the mediocrity of 2011 is a damn lie.
“He’s a key,” first-year Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie acknowledged simply. “A big key.”
Every season, of course, there are players returning from a previous year’s injury who are critical to the success of their respective franchises.
McFadden, who played in and started only seven games in 2011 because of a Lisfranc sprain to his right foot, is arguably near the top of the list for 2012. There has been considerable ink devoted the past few weeks to the improvement of the Oakland wide receiver corps (particularly that of onetime first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey), and to what it will mean for the Raiders to have quarterback Carson Palmer at their disposal for the entire season.
Having a fully rehabilitated McFadden, though, would be a pretty nice starting point for new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
Remarks recently from running backs coach Kelly Skipper certainly were optimistic. As were the reports from McKenzie and rookie head coach Dennis Allen a little more than a month ago. And McFadden, who was chosen a Pro Bowl alternate last year despite playing less than half the season, seems ready to go.
“There’s (a lot) of lost time to make up for,” McFadden said. “It was going good before the injury. I think I can pick it right back up.”
Indeed, before the Lisfranc sprain, which did not require surgery, McFadden averaged a heady 5.4 yards per carry. Over the course of the season, only two backs who registered more than 100 carries, Buffalo’s Fred Jackson and DeMarco Murray of Dallas, posted higher averages. McFadden, who will be 25 in August, was on pace for a 1,400-yard season. Oakland was 4-3 with McFadden in the lineup.
And then McFadden went to the sidelines and, even though replacement Michael Bush rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in his place, the Raiders’ playoff hopes seemed to limp off with him.
True, the Raiders required only a victory in the season finale to earn their first postseason berth since 2002, but Oakland did finish below .500 with Bush as the starter and seemed to lack the big-play potential McFadden can provide to the running game.
Said Palmer: “I don’t think anyone, even him sometimes, realizes how good he is. We really need him to be back and be healthy.”
Notable is that, with the free agency defection of Bush to Chicago, there is no safety net this year. The top backups appear to be second-year veteran Taiwan Jones, who logged only 16 attempts as a rookie in 2011, and fourth-year pro Mike Goodson, acquired from Carolina via an offseason trade.
Goodson ran for 452 yards two years ago for the Panthers, but was deemed expendable when Carolina added free agent Mike Tolbert in the offseason, and is prone to fumbles.
Allen pronounced at the NFL meetings in March that “there aren’t a lot of (runners) like McFadden” in the league, and he could be right, if the four-year veteran can ever get through a season whole. But the series of injuries McFadden has encountered — including a toe sprain, a hamstring, and assorted bumps and bruises in addition to the Lisfranc sprain — means he has never played in or started more than 13 games in a season.
Hopeful that he might be able to return at some point late last season, the Raiders never placed McFadden on injured reserve, but it didn’t matter.
This time around, everyone is confident the optimism will be better rewarded.
Including McFadden, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2010, but who averaged just 110.0 carries his other three seasons.
The Raiders made McFadden the fourth overall pick in 2008, and only three backs have been chosen higher the past 10 years. In the fifth season of his six-year, $60 million contract, Oakland needs McFadden to deliver on that status.
“It’s time,” McFadden said.