Every Play Counts: Darren McFadden Is a Great Runner, Not Yet a Great Football Player

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Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.

Raiders running back Darren McFadden had 21 carries for 164 yards on Sunday against the Chiefs, so you might think that an examination of his performance on every play of that game would reveal that the rookie is already a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

But in reality, after watching the tape of McFadden on every play of Sunday's game, I've concluded that while he is a great runner, he's got a long way to go before he's actually a great running back.

What I mean when I say he's a great runner is that when all he has to do is get the ball and run in space, he does it well. That's why, through two weeks of the season, McFadden leads the league with four runs of 20 yards or more.

But there's much more to being an NFL running back than just running fast with the ball in your hands in the open field. There's breaking tackles, finding holes, contributing to the passing game, and -- most fundamental of all -- holding onto the ball. He has work to do on all that.

Let's start with what would seem, if you just took a glance at the box score, to be McFadden's best play of the day, his 50-yard run on third-and-11 in the third quarter. On that play the offensive line opened up a big hole for him, and he showed all the burst the Raiders thought he had when they made him the fourth pick in the draft, accelerating through the hole and breaking into the open field.

That's all great, but then two things happened: First, Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard caught him from behind. McFadden looked to me like he slowed down on the play, as if he was sure no one could catch him, but he indicated after the game that he just couldn't get to full speed because of a toe injury, and I'll take his word on that.

Second, and more importantly, when Pollard caught him, he punched the ball out of McFadden's arm. Although McFadden got lucky and the ball rolled out of bounds, he needs to hold onto the ball better. His propensity for fumbling was a major knock on him at Arkansas, and it's a problem he hasn't solved yet.

In fact, McFadden had two fumbles against the Chiefs. His other fumble also came when Pollard was tackling him: Just before McFadden hit the ground, the ball hit Raiders fullback Justin Griffith's heel, and Griffith basically kicked the ball out of McFadden's arm. Something like that isn't likely to happen again, but still: He should have had a tighter hold on the ball.

Besides his fumbling problems, the other major criticism of McFadden going into the draft was that he goes down on first contact. I saw plenty of evidence of that in Sunday's game.

Three consecutive plays early in the third quarter serve as a great illustration of the kind of running back McFadden is. On the first play of the drive, the Raiders' offensive line opened up a big hole right in front of him, and he showed tremendous burst in sprinting through it and picking up 21 yards before anyone could lay a hand on him. On the next play, McFadden took another handoff, but this time the hole wasn't quite so big, he hesitated a little bit and Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey grabbed him and brought him to the ground with ease for a gain of just a yard. On the play after that, there was no hole at all: Someone on the Raiders missed a blocking assignment and Chiefs linebacker Donnie Edwards came in untouched to hit McFadden for a loss of two.

Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders noticed that McFadden mixed in a lot of very short runs with his few very long runs. Barnwell writes:

The Raiders gave the ball to McFadden eight times on second down with between 6 and 10 yards to go; in those situations, he gained 2, 2, 1, 2, -2, 24, 2, and 5 yards. The big play certainly is nice, but unless McFadden becomes more consistent in gaining positive yardage, he'll become a very overrated back very quickly.

Those short runs on second downs demonstrate the kind of player McFadden is right now: He has the speed to break long runs, but he lacks the ability to pick up chunks of yardage consistently.

I should note that the next play after that three-run series I mentioned was McFadden's 50-yarder that ended with the fumble. And three plays after that, he scored on a 19-yard touchdown. Obviously, when you're watching a guy who breaks runs of 21, 50 and 19 yards on one drive, you're watching a guy with great talent.

I'd just like to see him make more of that talent, to use it not just to break highlight-reel runs but also to fight for tough yardage when there aren't any lanes open. On Sunday, McFadden had open lanes several times because the Raiders' offensive line was getting the better of its battle with the Chiefs' defensive line all day. That's also why the Raiders were effective on the ground when the other backs were running the ball: Michael Bush had 16 carries for 90 yards and Justin Fargas had nine carries for 43 yards.

In addition to wanting more short-yardage production from McFadden, I'd like to see the Raiders get him more involved in the passing game. The only pass he had thrown his way was on the Raiders' first offensive play, a swing pass that JaMarcus Russell threw over the grasp of Chiefs defensive end Tamba Hali. McFadden did a nice job of adjusting while the ball was in the air, hauling it in and running down the sideline for a nine-yard gain before he was pushed out of bounds.

Russell had a bad game on Sunday, completing just 6 of 17 passes for 55 yards, and I think he, McFadden and the whole Raiders offense would be better off if Lane Kiffin called for Russell to throw more short passes to McFadden. (I was hoping to provide an assessment of how McFadden picks up the blitz, but the answer based on Sunday's game is that he doesn't: Whenever he was on the field on a passing down, he ran a route.)

Although I'm not overly impressed with the way McFadden played on Sunday, It's important to remember how young McFadden is: He just turned 21 last month. He'll have his breakaway speed for several years, and during those years I expect him to get better at breaking tackles and holding onto the ball.

And even if all he does is get the ball and run fast, he's already a better pure runner than the last running back who was a Top 5 pick: Reggie Bush is in his third season with the Saints and has never come close to the 161 rushing yards in a game McFadden got Sunday. Bush has still topped 100 yards rushing in a game just once.

I think McFadden is going to be a very good NFL running back some day. Against the Chiefs he showed off both the raw talent to become a great player and the reasons he's not there yet.

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