Last season Ryan Mathews waged a war against my fantasy teams. It wasn’t until last week, when I killed him in my Fake Football debut article that I was finally liberated from his tyranny. Writing that piece proved to be the tomato bath I needed to rid myself of Mathews’ putrid stench. Suddenly the bitter memories of my lousy fantasy teams began to fade away. At the same time, NFL playoff gambling season kicked into high gear, and a couple of big wins later (I adore you Russell Wilson), I was actually enjoying football again.
While my roller coaster relationship with the NFL was certainly back on the upswing, there was still one lingering black (and silver) cloud from fantasy football season raining down on my (balding, mediocre) head. Full disclosure: Ryan Mathews was the fall guy, but I knew he didn’t act alone. He had a co-conspirator in his fiendish plot to lay waste to my fantasy football season…one that I’m not ready to stop making excuses for just yet.
Ever had a crazy girlfriend that your buddies all warned you was a complete train wreck, but it took you about a year to realize they were right? Then after the inevitable messy break-up, you run into her one night, she looks smoking hot, and you fail to consider even for a second that she may be a lunatic before taking her home with you again? How about all those times you demand to end a night of heavy drinking with a 3AM visit to White Castle? You know very well that eating a literal suitcase full of mushy, greasy, delightful, little burgers can only end badly. Yet somehow you keep waking up hung over worse than ever, covered in burger grease, onion stink, and regret.
Darren McFadden is my ridiculously hot ex with that crazed, Children of the Corn look in her eyes. He is my precious White Castle slider that comes securely nestled in its own tiny cardboard holder. So what, he’s caused me so much emotional distress that he should be billed for my psychiatrist visits? Who cares he leaves me feeling like Harry after Lloyd got his revenge at the end of every season? McFadden may be a hot mess, but he’s my hot mess and I won’t quit him.
Look, I’m not going to pretend to be any less disgusted with McFadden’s 2012 performance than the rest of you. He was dreadful by any metric, posting career lows in yards per rush (3.3), yards per catch (6.1), and yards after catch (6.7). His rushing yards per game sat at a paltry 58.9, and he scored only 3 total TD’s in 12 games.
Yep, 12 games. Once again McFadden failed to eclipse 13 games played, a number he has never exceeded in his five year pro career. This year it wasn’t his toe (2008), knee (2009), hamstring, toe again (2010), shoulder, or foot (2011) that caused him to miss the better part of a month, but instead a dreaded high ankle sprain. Clearly the kid’s got a lot of talents, but staying healthy isn’t one of them.
I realize I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. McFadden’s susceptibility to injury is no more a revelation today than it was when leagues drafted back in August. But if you could have guaranteed me on draft day that I’d get 12 games out of McFadden, and would have him available for the fantasy playoffs? I’m pretty confident I still would have picked him in the back half of round one. Gambling on upside is kind of my thing, and McFadden’s ceiling might have been the highest of any RB in the league. Remember that only a year ago, McFadden’s 17.4 fantasy point per game average over the first 7 weeks ranked second at RB, behind only Arian Foster. Production like that affords you the luxury of managing around a few missed games.
So what the hell happened this season? How did McFadden go from per game stud to Troy Hambrick overnight?
Any McFadden apologist will be quick to give you a three word response to that question: Zone…Blocking…Scheme. New Head Coach Dennis Allen and OC Greg Knapp decided to install the new run scheme, eschewing the gap and power blocking system that McFadden had thrived in under former coach Hue Jackson. Before the season started, I assumed this change was a positive development for McFadden’s 2012 prospects. I’m not much of an X’s and O’s guy – just a fantasy player who has been conditioned to think that zone blocking schemes can only mean great things for a team’s running game (see Kubiak’s Texans, Shanahan’s Broncos). If it worked for other teams who employed lesser talents than McFadden at RB, what could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, implementing a new blocking scheme (especially one of the zone variety) can be extremely difficult for both offensive linemen and ball carriers. This extraordinary piece by Matt Waldman details how McFadden and the Oakland o-line struggled to adapt. Waldman wrote that article back in October, needing only four games to properly diagnose the problems with an offense that went on to finish 28th in team rushing yards and 29th in run blocking (per Football Outsiders).
If you don’t care to click the link (I highly suggest you do), here’s the summary of why McFadden couldn’t get anything going:
* Zone blocking is harder to learn than traditional man blocking. The Oakland linemen were often confused, making it exceedingly difficult for McFadden to make yards between the tackles.
* McFadden did not exhibit enough patience to wait for the best blocks to develop
* McFadden was pressing – trying to overcompensate for lack of production by jumping at non-existent holes and trying to dance his way to home runs
* McFadden’s skill set is a more natural fit in a power blocking scheme where he can run off tackle, hit the hole, and turn on the jets.
So there you have it. Zone blocking fit McFadden like a fat guy in a little coat. The good news? The Raiders organization has been quick to admit its mistake since the regular season ended. Greg Knapp has been shown the door. In his place steps Greg Olson (not to be confused with Greg Olsen), former offensive coordinator of the Lions, Rams, and Bucs. Olson’s team rushing ranks in his years as an OC have been far from elite, but his hiring is unquestionably a positive for McFadden. First and foremost, Olson will be reinstalling the power running scheme that DMC averaged 5.3 YPC in during the Hue Jackson years – a huge win for fans of common sense.
A quick look at Olson’s resume reveals some noteworthy accomplishments. In his first season as OC of the Rams, Steven Jackson had a monster fantasy year, establishing career highs in rushing yards (1,528), receiving yards (806), and receptions (90). Perhaps more impressively, Olson’s 2010 Tampa rushing offense ranked 8th in total yards, despite featuring no talent knucklehead LeGarrette Blount at RB. That year Blount averaged 5.0 YPC and ran for 1,007 yards in 13 games. Forget lemonade, that’s turning lemons into Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Just yesterday the Raiders continued to address the offensive line by hiring former Dolphins head coach and Jets OC Tony Sparano as line coach. As a Jets fan, I can tell you with full confidence that the good folks in the Black Hole don’t want this guy anywhere near the playbook, but he’s still got a sterling reputation for coaching linemen dating back to his Dallas days. I’m counting it as another step in the right direction for an offense that just produced a RB with the lowest YPC average in franchise history (yes McFadden’s 3.3 YPC was worst ever for a Raider with at least 150 carries).
The early off season returns would all seem to be coming up roses for McFadden’s 2013 fantasy value. In case you’re still not convinced, here’s a few quotes from the Raiders brain trust that have prompted me to reserve my usual seat on the DMC bandwagon:
Raiders Coach Dennis Allen on the decision to hire Olson:
“I like his demeanor, I like his philosophy I like the way he wants a tough, physical and yet explosive-type offense. And I liked the fact that he talked about, we’ve got to fit the scheme to the personnel, to the guys that we have and try to do the things that they do really well. And really limit the times that we ask them to do things that maybe they aren’t as good at.”
-CSN Bay Area
Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie on McFadden:
“I’m not an offensive guru, but I do know when Darren is running certain plays, it’s pretty doggone good, and he had some last year. But when you talk about a scheme, he’s not a lateral mover. He’s not one of those guys. As soon as he can go north and south, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Sure sounds to me like a couple of guys who are focused on tailoring the offense specifically to McFadden’s strengths. At this point, I would say there’s a high probability he retains feature back duties. Another factor that we shouldn’t discount is the almighty dollar. Allen and McKenzie have the incentive to ride McFadden until the wheels (inevitably) fall off. The Raiders are paying him a fairly steep $5.86 million next season, which is the final year of his rookie contract. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t athletes sometimes save their best performances for contract years?
I can hear what you’re thinking. Schemes, contracts, coaches. None of these things have anything to do with McFadden’s biggest problem – the certainty that he will miss games. There’s not much of a defense I can offer up on that front, except the same one I used coming into last season: Eventually the guy’s got to luck his way into staying healthy for at least 14 games, doesn’t he? Ever heard the stories about the broken clock or the blind squirrel? It has to happen at least once. Why can’t next year finally be the year?
So remember where you heard it first. This will finally be the year that Darren McFadden won’t leave you reaching for the Imodium A-D. Don’t bother paying attention to silly formalities like the NFL Draft, free agency, and training camp when shaping how you value McFadden next August. Everything you need to know is written right here in this late-January article. You have my word that this will turn out totally different than the time you stayed with that chick who slashed your tires for having too many female friends on Facebook.