It’s very possible that the Raiders will go as far as Darren McFadden’s feet can carry them.
The Raiders simply seem to win when they have their often-injured but brilliant running back on the field, and struggle without him.
With McFadden running as well as he ever has at the start of last season, the Raiders won four of their first six games and looked dynamic on offense. But, once he suffered a foot injury early in the seventh game – never to return – the team lost six of its final 10 games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs once again.
Now, McFadden is healthy again and has looked 100 percent in his few appearances during the exhibition season.
New coach Dennis Allen knows how important McFadden is to the success of the offense in 2012, but he says he won’t coddle him. Allen plans to give McFadden the ball early and often in every game, starting with the regular-season opener vs. the San Diego Chargers on “Monday Night Football” on Sept. 10.
“He’s 100 percent,” Allen said recently of McFadden. “He’s been extremely explosive throughout camp and in the preseason. He’s very vital to our offense, giving our offense a chance to be explosive and keep the defenses honest.
“We’re going to have to keep him healthy and use him throughout the year. The thing that you look at as a running back, it’s a tough position and they take some shots. That’s part of football and you can’t baby him, we can’t protect him. … We hope that he’s able to stay healthy.”
Keeping him healthy might be even more important in 2012 than in recent seasons because durable and effective backup Michael Bush is gone.
Bush, who stepped in last season when McFadden was hurt, left in free agency to sign with the Chicago Bears.
Now, the primary backups to McFadden are second-year pro Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson, a fourth-year backup from Texas A&M who played his first three seasons with the Carolina Panthers and was acquired by the Raiders in a trade this offseason.
Jones is the flashiest of the two, with what appears to be a higher upside, because of his speed. In limited appearances last season, Jones was at times electric, and last year’s coaching staff and Allen’s staff has again raved about Jones’ game-breaking burst and quickness.
Both Jones and Goodson also have had durability problems in their brief careers. Goodson played just 28 of a possible 48 games in Carolina, and Jones misses six games in 2011.
Also, neither is a big, physical back who’s shown himself capable of taking a pounding. Both are 6-feet tall, with Goodson 210 pounds and Jones 197.
If healthy, this Raiders offense with McFadden running on all cylinders and quarterback Carson Palmer much more comfortable in his second season – and with potentially some dangerous young receivers – could be much more consistent in 2012.
But one injury to McFadden could send everything spinning out of sync – especially if Jones or Goodson is not up to the task as a fill-in.
On Thursday night against Seattle, with McFadden on the sideline, neither Jones or Goodson looked electric. Goodson had 26 yards on eight carries (and also was tackled in the end zone for a safety); Jones had 12 yards on seven carries.
The Raiders passed on signing a few veteran running backs this summer, including Cedric Benson, deciding to stay with the players in camp.
Is it a mistake? The question will be meaningless if McFadden stays healthy.
But, as ESPN.com’s AFC West blogger Bill Williamson wrote recently: “Oakland needs another backup running back behind Darren McFadden for depth purposes.”