| By carrying with either hand, McFadden hopes to limit his fumbles.
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
8 DENVER (M)
14 at Kansas City
21 at Buffalo
28 SAN DIEGO
12 at New Orleans
19 N.Y. JETS
26 at Baltimore
16 at Miami
23 at Denver
30 KANSAS CITY
4 at San Diego (T)
14 NEW ENGLAND
28 at Tampa Bay
Thomas Howard, Linebacker: Kirk Morrison was at San Diego State in 2003 when he saw a UTEP linebacker chase an Aztecs running back 50 yards to haul him down. "He looked nasty, like an old-school throwback," recalls Morrison, who now sees that guy all the time -- Howard, who had six interceptions in '07. His speed complements Morrison's strength.
With JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden, the offense of the future takes shape. But the future is not now.
The move didn't look like anything special, a running back cradling the ball
in his left hand as he charged left, then switching the ball to his right hand
as he cut right. But for Darren McFadden, the Raiders' highly touted rookie,
that simple motion was the result of a summer's work. "My whole life, I've
carried the ball in my left hand," McFadden says. "Since I got here, I've been
practicing carrying it in my right hand, high and tight."
Rookies need training camp, all of training camp. Last year Oakland made LSU
quarterback JaMarcus Russell the No. 1 pick in the draft, but he missed camp
because of a contract holdout; after finally coming in on Sept. 12, he
needed most of the season to get acclimated. This year the Raiders took McFadden
fourth overall, signed him in early June and had him in training camp on the
first day. As a result, when the season starts, McFadden will be available to
carry the ball, catch passes out of the backfield, even line up at receiver.
"You're so excited with what the guy can do -- all these special things outside
the formation," says coach Lane Kiffin, who was the offensive coordinator for
the similarly versatile running back Reggie Bush at USC. "But you've got to be
careful because all of a sudden you can find him doing a bunch of things but
nothing really well. We screwed that up with Reggie."
McFadden already figures to be the team's most potent playmaker. Despite
Russell's obvious arm strength, he is still raw, and his receivers are too. The
Raiders will have to win on the strength of their defense and their running
game. Just as Bush had Deuce McAllister to help carry the load when he arrived
in New Orleans two years ago, and Adrian Peterson had Chester Taylor last season
in Minnesota, McFadden will share the backfield with sixth-year veteran Justin
Fargas, who'll begin the season as the starter.
McFadden clearly sees himself more like Peterson, a traditional runner who
can pound between the tackles, than Bush, a hybrid who prefers to get outside.
"I feel like I'm an every-down back," McFadden says. "I definitely have the
heart for it. Now it's just working on technique."
Tom Rathman, the running backs coach, has corrected McFadden's most glaring
technical flaw. That penchant for carrying the ball almost exclusively in his
left hand, often with his elbow up, was part of the reason McFadden fumbled 23
times in 38 career games at Arkansas. "It's all about keeping his elbow locked
down and keeping the ball in his outside arm," Rathman says.
In addition to not being able to protect the ball, the other knock on
McFadden that the Raiders heard leading up to the draft was that he would not
stay out of trouble (SI, April 28). But Oakland can always tolerate a player
with a few indiscretions (McFadden was involved in a couple of disturbances at
Arkansas bars), as long as he can run. "Oh, he can run," says linebacker Kirk
Morrison. "But what's really stuck out is his character. I heard so much about
the kid, the incidents he had. I've just seen a very hardworking guy."
The Raiders have tested him. During a practice in August, three days before
the first preseason game, McFadden caught a swing pass in the flat and was
leveled by linebacker Thomas Howard. Standing over McFadden, Howard wondered how
the rookie would react. "He just got back up and ran the play again," Howard
says. "The guy is fast, but he's also tough. He's got a little dog in him."
In the off-season Oakland spent $224 million on contracts for four new
players -- McFadden and free-agent veterans cornerback DeAngelo Hall, safety Gibril
Wilson and receiver Javon Walker. The moves reaffirmed the franchise's supposed
commitment to excellence, which some questioned during Russell's holdout last
season. The Raiders are not yet a playoff team, but if they can keep the defense
intact as Russell and McFadden grow together, they may not be so
far away. -- Lee Jenkins