By JOSH DUBOW
NAPA, Calif. (AP) Darren McFadden hopes that going downhill will be just the tonic to revive his career with the Oakland Raiders.
Back in a familiar offense that suits his running style perfectly, McFadden is looking to bounce back from a disastrous 2012 campaign and return to the big-play back he was for the two years Hue Jackson ran the Raiders’ offense.
Oakland switched schemes after Jackson was fired as coach following the 2011 season, returning to the same zone blocking system under coordinator Greg Knapp that McFadden struggled with early in his career. Those struggles returned and McFadden had one of the worst years ever for a Raiders back.
With new coordinator Greg Olsen bringing back a power running system, the Raiders are hoping to see the old McFadden, who was one of the league’s top backs the previous two years.
“It feels great,” McFadden said of the new offense. “I feel like I’m a downhill runner and it’s something that coaches see also. By us getting into a gap scheme offense, being able to get downhill, they feel like that suits me a lot more. I’m looking forward, O-line is doing a great job, getting in there on a double-team and opening holes up.”
The Raiders practiced in pads for the first time in training camp on Sunday, giving the first real test of whether the running game has improved after dragging down the offense during a 4-12 season last year that cost Knapp his job.
The biggest problem was McFadden’s struggles in the zone running scheme that does not fit his style of play. After averaging more than 5 yards per carry in each of his two seasons in Jackson’s offense, McFadden averaged just 3.3 last season – the lowest ever for a Raiders back with at least 150 carries in a season.
“Last year is last year,” McFadden said. “We put that behind us. We have a lot of new faces here, a new offensive scheme, and there are a lot of new things going on. We’re not going to concern ourselves with what went on last year. We’ll look forward to this year.”
McFadden is much more comfortable in a power system where he is asked to run straight ahead rather than the zone system where he often was called on to run laterally and wait for a hole before cutting up field.
When McFadden ran in a similar offense in 2010 and `11, he was one of the game’s best big-play backs, gaining at least 20 yards on one of every 15 runs. He led the NFL in yards rushing before a season-ending foot injury midway through the 2011 season and had become one of the game’s most dangerous backs.
That all changed last year when he had only four long runs in 216 carries.
“We know how damaging it can be for another team with all those big plays that he can make,” left tackle Jared Veldheer said. “Even just grinding out those 5-yard carries, he’s a very good back and you know we’re happy to be in a kind of double team the guys back, let them move the line, and let him do his thing type of system.”
This season could be the last chance for the Raiders to see that kind of play from McFadden, whose tenure in Oakland has been hampered by various injuries that have sidelined him for 23 games over five seasons. His contract he signed after being drafted fourth overall in 2008 expires at the end of the season, leaving his future with Oakland up in the air.
McFadden said he is not focused on his future right now and is just happy to be back in a system he likes. That increased comfort level is obvious to those around him.
“Darren has always been a guy who has come to work every day and no matter what the circumstances are he’s going to continue to go out there and compete,” coach Dennis Allen said. “I think it’s obvious that he feels more comfortable in a downhill type of scheme. We’ll try to put him in those situations as much as possible because he is an explosive player for us.”
NOTES: WR Jacoby Ford wasn’t able to finish practice with an injury. … LBs Sio Moore and Kaluka Maiava did not practice a day after being hurt and Allen said Maiava would miss “a little bit of time.”
Updated July 28, 2013