|Darren McFadden has only been stopped by a succession of lower-body injuries. (US Presswire)|
NAPA, Calif. -- Normally there's no one as important to a football team as its quarterback, but with the Oakland Raiders we'll have to make an exception. Because for the Raiders to be as "playoff ready" as quarterback Carson Palmer says they are, they must have Darren McFadden in the lineup.
McFadden is a running back and not just any running back. He's what teammate Richard Seymour called "special," and it's easy to see why. He can bend the middle of the line. He can dart around end. He's fast. He's explosive. He can pass block. And he's the best pass catcher on the team. In short, he can do virtually everything ... except stay on the field.
And that's where Oakland could be in trouble.
McFadden not only hasn't lasted more than 13 games in any of his four NFL seasons, he bowed out after only seven starts in 2011. That's called a trend, and it's a disturbing sign for a club that absolutely, positively must have him if it's going to challenge for the AFC West championship.
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The question, of course, is how do you prevent McFadden from getting hurt? It's not as if he's had a recurrence of one injury. It's that he's had several injuries in succession. One year it's a sore toe; another it's a sprained foot; then a bad hamstring or a damaged knee. It's always something, and it must stop for the Raiders to move forward.
"We've got to do whatever we can to make sure we keep him stretched out, keep him hydrated and do what we can as far as preventative measures go to keep him healthy," first-year coach Dennis Allen said. "He's an elite back, and we need him to stay healthy for us to have a chance to have the success we want to have."
I'll second that.
A year ago Oakland had Michael Bush sitting behind McFadden, and he was a reliable safety net -- setting personal bests in nearly every category while serving as McFadden's understudy and replacement. But Bush is gone, having signed with Chicago as a free agent, leaving Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson as backups.
The Raiders seem high on both, but both have been hurt in training camp -- with Jones still sidelined by a strained hamstring and Goodson returning to practice Wednesday from a neck injury that first appeared worse than it was.
"I felt pretty good," Goodson said afterward.
The Raiders should, too. They must have someone, anyone, riding shotgun to make sure McFadden isn't the only option at running back because ... well, because history tells us he just won't last, and pity poor Oakland if that happens again.
"Running backs miss time in pro football," Allen said. "That's why the backup running back is a critical position. You have to have two good ones because I don't think there's that day where you turn around and hand off the ball to anybody for 25-30 times a game -- not for 16 games -- and expect them to hold up for a long time.
"That's why careers of running backs are so short. Darren has done everything he's got to do. He's gotten himself ready physically, mentally, and now it's just time to go play."
In Monday's preseason loss to Dallas, McFadden was Oakland's best player -- averaging nearly 13 yards on his three touches. But what's new? This is a guy who averaged nearly 5.3 yards per carry the past two seasons and scored 15 times in 20 games.
When he's right there are few backs better and not many as versatile or dynamic. But he missed 12 games the past two years, and you wonder what might have been for Oakland had he been able to stay on the field.
"Are you injury prone or the victim of bad luck?" I asked him.
"You can say a little bit of both," he said. "I don't feel I'm injury prone. I made it through my years of college [University of Arkansas] without missing a single football game. Then I get here -- and I'm very blessed to be in the NFL -- so I won't say it's bad luck, but it's just one of those deals. It's how the football bounces. You get hurt, you have to deal with it and you keep moving forward.
"But I can't worry about getting injured. I'm just going to go out there and play football, and if something happens I'm going to have to deal with it. I can't go out there playing not to get hurt. I'm going out there to play 110 percent every down."
McFadden has an ally in new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. He has a history of working with teams that feature more than one guy carrying the ball, and that goes back to Atlanta when Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett split carries. The past two years, Knapp was the quarterbacks coach with Houston, where the Texans featured Arian Foster but used Ben Tate in relief, and look for a similar approach here.
"What we do here in training camp," Knapp said, "is to give [McFadden] just the right amount of reps so we don't overwork him to make sure he stays fresh during the regular season. Then, once we're 'in season,' I like a two-back rotation -- and if I can get a third back that's even better.
"There's an importance of managing his reps during the season. I'm playing the percentages that we're due a break -- no pun intended -- and won't have any health issues."
That's the hope. The reality is that the odds aren't with McFadden or the Raiders. If he can last the season there's no reason to believe that Oakland -- which tied for the division lead a year ago but lost out on a tiebreaker -- can't at least be a threat in the AFC West.
Of course, that's a big if.
"You ever wonder what you could do if you stayed in the lineup an entire season?" I asked.
"Oooooooh," he said, "I haven't thought much about it. But I'm sure I can put up some great numbers. People will see a lot of flashes here or there when I'm out there playing, but I feel like with 16 games I can do a great deal for this team."
So do I.