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McFadden goes from bust talk to talk of the league

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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McFadden: 'Just being healthy, you can go out there and let loose and play like you want to play.' (Getty Images)  
McFadden: 'Just being healthy, you can go out there and let loose and play like you want to play.' (Getty Images)  

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Raiders coach Hue Jackson was deep into his postgame press conference after Sunday's 34-24 victory over the Jets when he spotted running back Darren McFadden, waiting to take his turn at the podium.

"You guys are probably tired of talking to me," Jackson said. "That's the guy you want to talk to. That man right there. He's the best in football, bar none. Bar none."

McFadden, the NFL's best running back? Bar none? Not that long ago, McFadden looked more like a draft bust than the top back in the league. But the numbers say Jackson might be right.

Heading into Sunday's home game against the Patriots, McFadden leads the NFL in rushing with 393 yards -- 48 ahead of Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy and 86 ahead of Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew. He's tied with Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker for the league lead in combined yards from scrimmage with 477.

Against the Jets, McFadden rushed for a career-high 171 yards on 19 carries, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. He averaged 9.0 yards per carry and burned the Jets on a career-long 70-yard touchdown run late in the first half that knotted the game at 17-17.

More on Darren McFadden

"He's a great player," Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis said after the game. "He crushed us today."

The Raiders used the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft to take McFadden after he rewrote the record book at Arkansas, rushing for 4,590 yards and 41 touchdowns. He was an explosive triple threat from scrimmage -- running, catching and even throwing in Arkansas' Wild Hog set, a version of the Wildcat. That's what the Raiders expected to see from McFadden in the NFL, but he rushed for just 499 yards as a rookie and 357 yards in 2009 as his average per carry dropped from 4.4 yards to a 3.4, production you'd expect from an undrafted rookie, not a top-five pick.

What went wrong?

Well, during his first two seasons, McFadden was plagued by turf toe and knee injuries. He also struggled to adjust to a run game that was heavy on zone blocking under former coach Tom Cable.

McFadden's transformation began last year when Jackson arrived from Baltimore as the Raiders offensive coordinator. Jackson knew what McFadden had accomplished at Arkansas, so he asked McFadden for a list of plays he liked in college.

"He wanted to put you in a position that you could make plays," McFadden said. "You know, he felt like that was something we needed to do is ask me what plays I like to do."

McFadden told Jackson that he liked "just getting downhill" in a power running scheme, instead of the slower-developing zone scheme. He said he liked to "make one cut and go."

"And then of course I like being on the edge so I could use some of my speed more," McFadden added.

Jackson revamped the running game, and McFadden regained the form he showed in college. He rushed for 1,157 yards on 223 carries and caught 47 passes for 507 yards last season. He rushed for seven touchdowns and caught three touchdown passes. This year he's on pace to rush for 2,096 yards and 16 touchdowns.

"He's able to get from point A to point B faster than anyone I've seen," Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell said. "He can get in a hole and shift out and make two guys miss and get down the sideline. He's just as fast as some of our receivers, and everyone knows we're a fast bunch."

McFadden has thrived in Jackson's system, but he has also avoided the knee and foot injuries that marred his first two seasons.

"It's just a great thing being out there playing," McFadden said. "Injuries are one of the hardest things for a running back, especially with the injuries I've had as far as turf toe and things. It's hard to play with those injuries. Just being healthy, you can go out there and let loose and play like you want to play."

McFadden certainly let loose against the Jets, especially on his 70-yard touchdown run. He shot around the left end, picking up a huge block from former Giants tight end Kevin Boss, who sealed the edge.

"He's one of the best backs that I've seen play," Boss said. "He's fast. He runs hard. He runs extremely hard. He punishes the tacklers. They're coming and they're going to get punished just the way he runs. He's exciting. He's fun to block for. You know he's going to hit the hole and he's going to be out the other side before you know it."

From the moment he replaced Cable as the Raiders' coach, Jackson has talked about "building a bully" in Oakland, a project that began with his offensive line. Jackson plugged in rookie Stefen Wisniewski at left guard and made Khalif Barnes his starter at right tackle. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, center Samson Satele and right guard Cooper Carlisle remained in the starting five.

The Raiders' revamped offensive line has been opening up plenty of holes for McFadden to run through. And McFadden has been getting plenty of carries, playing for a run-dominated offense in a pass-crazy league.

"First, I have to give credit to the offensive line," McFadden said after his 171-yard rushing game against the Jets' vaunted defense. "They did a great job out there making blocks and opening holes for me. All I had to do was hit the hole running.

"You know, Coach Hue, he always talks about building a bully. It doesn't matter who we are playing against, that's what you want to go out there and do is try to bully them, and that's what we were able to do."

On Sunday, McFadden will face a Patriots run defense that ranks No. 11 in the league, allowing just 91.7 yards. New England's defense, however, has yet to face a running back with McFadden's combination of speed, power and quickness.

"He can go the distance from anywhere," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "You just can't ever relax on him."

The more yards McFadden gains, the more attention he'll attract from opposing defenses. No one should be surprised if the Patriots stack the box Sunday with defenders and point them toward McFadden.

"If that's what they want to do, put eight, nine guys in the box, that's why we have receivers, to try to move the ball around," McFadden said. "Whether they want to load the box up, our running game is one of the strong points on our team, and we're going to try to do that regardless."

McFadden is on pace to break the single-season Raiders rushing record of 1,759 yards that Marcus Allen set in 1985. If he's not the NFL's best running back, as Jackson contends, then he's certainly in the conversation. McFadden, though, is doing his best to ignore the praise.

"I guess two years ago I was a bust. Now I'm the best running back in the league," McFadden said. "So it's something I really don't pay attention to. I just keep going out there and keep grinding hard and working hard every day."

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