It’s taken a little longer than expected, but Darren McFadden is officially living up to expectations as a former No. 4 overall pick. And with him running the show, Oakland is emerging as a darkhorse in the AFC playoff picture.
McFadden ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in Oakland’s big victory over the Jets Sunday. And while that kind of effort is nothing new for Run DMC, his big games have previously come against teams like Denver, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Arizona and Seattle. But the Jets had the league’s third-best run defense last year. Prior to Sunday, the Jets had never allowed an opposing back to run for over 123 yards in the Rex Ryan era.
McFadden is now the league’s rushing leader, and by a fairly wide margin. He’s getting close to a full load, and yet he’s still averaging a ridiculous 6.4 yards per carry.
Adrian Peterson has been good, but not spectacular. Chris Johnson is struggling, badly. Jamaal Charles is out. LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson have emerged as top-tier backs and Maurice Jones-Drew is having a solid year, but none of those guys have made the same impact McFadden has. He’s the league’s hottest running back, but it’s been that way since about midway through the 2010 season.
So maybe it’s now safe to say that McFadden can claim the throne as the league’s best running back.
And that leads to the question: Will McFadden’s presence be enough to get the Raiders back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003? While San Diego is the undisputed favorite in the AFC West, the Chargers barely survived at home against a depleted Chiefs team on Sunday, and Oakland proved that it can go toe-to-toe with the Bolts when it swept the season series between the teams last year.
The knock on Oakland recently has been that the team can’t beat opponents outside of the division, but they arguably outplayed the Bills on the road in Week 2 before losing a nail-biter to a team that just beat the Patriots to move to 3-0, and then they clearly outplayed the powerful Jets in Week 3.
So maybe they’re about to shake that stigma.
The problem is that while a good quarterback can turn a good team into a great one or a great team into an elite one, running backs don’t generally have that kind of impact on franchises in the pass-oriented era we’re currently locked in. Johnson’s Titans haven’t made the playoffs during his recent run as the league’s top back, and Peterson hasn’t been able to save an otherwise mediocre Minnesota offense.
Look at the league’s top rushers from 2010. Arian Foster’s Texans didn’t make the playoffs, nor did Jones-Drew’s Jaguars, Charles’ Chiefs were one-and-done, McFadden’s Raiders fell short and Peterson’s Vikings finished 6-10.
Taking things further, when was the last time an elite running back led a team to a Super Bowl win? Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, the Giants and the Colts were all pass-first champions with running backs who were far from the superstar spectrum.
Running backs don’t win Super Bowls, but they can help. For the Raiders to return to glory, they’ll need to get more support for their superstar back.
The defense has surrendered 62 points in the last two games. Jason Campbell has been good, not great. And we’re still waiting to see who’ll emerge as Campbell’s top targets. An unproven offensive line has only surrendered two sacks thus far while paving the way for McFadden’s monster start, but it’s far from certain that the unit will keep rolling. Oh, and the secondary isn’t quite the same without some guy named Asomugha.
And it doesn’t get any easier with the Patriots on deck for Week 4. The Raiders are at home for that matchup, and McFadden can probably expect to have another solid game. But for the Raiders to get another big win over a Super Bowl contender, they’ll need to provide the league’s newest “top back” with more aid.