THE MOVE didn'tlook like anything special, a running back cradling the ball in his left handas 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 motionwas the result of a summer's work. "My whole life, I've carried the ball inmy left hand," McFadden says. "Since I got here, I've been practicingcarrying it in my right hand, high and tight."
Rookies needtraining camp, all of training camp. Last year Oakland made LSU quarterbackJaMarcus Russell the No. 1 pick in the draft, but he missed camp because of acontract holdout; after finally coming in on Sept. 12, he needed most of theseason 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 aresult, 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 soexcited with what the guy can do—all these special things outside theformation," says coach Lane Kiffin, who was the offensive coordinator forthe similarly versatile running back Reggie Bush at USC. "But you've got tobe careful because all of a sudden you can find him doing a bunch of things butnothing really well. We screwed that up with Reggie."
McFadden alreadyfigures to be the team's most potent playmaker. Despite Russell's obvious armstrength, he is still raw, and his receivers are too. The Raiders will have towin on the strength of their defense and their running game. Just as Bush hadDeuce McAllister to help carry the load when he arrived in New Orleans twoyears ago, and Adrian Peterson had Chester Taylor last season in Minnesota,McFadden will share the backfield with sixth-year veteran Justin Fargas, who'llbegin the season as the starter.
McFadden clearlysees himself more like Peterson, a traditional runner who can pound between thetackles, than Bush, a hybrid who prefers to get outside. "I feel like I'man every-down back," McFadden says. "I definitely have the heart forit. Now it's just working on technique."
Tom Rathman, therunning backs coach, has corrected McFadden's most glaring technical flaw. Thatpenchant for carrying the ball almost exclusively in his left hand, often withhis elbow up, was part of the reason McFadden fumbled 23 times in 38 careergames at Arkansas. "It's all about keeping his elbow locked down andkeeping the ball in his outside arm," Rathman says.
In addition tonot being able to protect the ball, the other knock on McFadden that theRaiders 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 fewindiscretions (McFadden was involved in a couple of disturbances at Arkansasbars), as long as he can run. "Oh, he can run," says linebacker KirkMorrison. "But what's really stuck out is his character. I heard so muchabout the kid, the incidents he had. I've just seen a very hardworkingguy."
The Raiders havetested him. During a practice in August, three days before the first preseasongame, McFadden caught a swing pass in the flat and was leveled by linebackerThomas Howard. Standing over McFadden, Howard wondered how the rookie wouldreact. "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 inhim."
In the off-seasonOakland spent $224 million on contracts for four new players—McFadden andfree-agent veterans cornerback DeAngelo Hall, safety Gibril Wilson and receiverJavon Walker. The moves reaffirmed the franchise's supposed commitment toexcellence, which some questioned during Russell's holdout last season. TheRaiders are not yet a playoff team, but if they can keep the defense intact asRussell and McFadden grow together, they may not be so far away.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH LANE KIFFIN (4--12 in NFL), secondseason with Raiders
Jake GROVE [NewACQUISITION]
Javon WALKER [NewACQUISITION]
Kwame HARRIS [NewACQUISITION]
Gibril WILSON[New ACQUISITION]
DeAngelo HALL[New ACQUISITION]
2007 RECORD 4--12NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 6/31/25 DEFENSE 31/8/22
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
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 30
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .438
Games against playoff teams: 4
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Raiders' units
Russell's progress will determine the offense's fate.
Already talented group more explosive with McFadden.
Curry offers a spark; overall, corps lacks speed and big plays.
Miller produced last year, but there isn't much behind him.
Just too many questions at the tackle spots.
Needs Burgess to regain his sack star form of 2006.
Morrison and Howard are especially effective on third down.
Good corners. Huff moves to free safety to make plays.
Janikowski and Lechler both have great power and range.
Kirk Morrison was at San Diego State in 2003 when hesaw a UTEP linebacker chase an Aztecs running back 50 yards to haul him down."He looked nasty, like an old-school throwback," recalls Morrison, whonow sees that guy all the time—Howard, who had six interceptions in '07. Hisspeed complements Morrison's strength.
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
July 22, 1985
HOWIE LONG is 25 years old with two years of All-Probehind him, a wife who has completed two years of law school and a baby sonnamed Christopher Howard Long. It's all there ahead of him, a life of infinitepromise, and yet almost every story he tells about himself has an undercurrentof despair. It's not me, he seems to be telling you, this isn't really me thatyou see here in front of you.
Free access to all Raiders stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
BEN MUNN/CAL SPORT MEDIA
TWO-FISTED By carrying with either hand, McFadden hopes to limit his fumbles.
ROB HOLT/ICON SMI
CHUCK SOLOMON (COVER)