Before their 2011 season opener against the Raiders, Broncos defenders focused squarely on stopping Darren McFadden, who had gashed them for 196 and 158 total yards, respectively, plus four touchdowns, in a pair of Oakland wins the previous season. The Broncos correctly assumed that the Raiders would stick with a McFadden-centric game plan—and yet he ran wild anyway, gaining 150 yards on 22 carries and setting up the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown with a 47-yard sprint.
"The guy's the real deal," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said of McFadden last week at training camp in Englewood, Colo. "He's a great pass blocker, a great receiver and a great runner. He can do anything you ask him to do."
Everything except stay healthy, it seems. Since being drafted fourth overall in 2008, the former Arkansas All-America has missed 19 games because of toe, knee, shoulder, hamstring and foot injuries, starting just 32 of a possible 64 games. Injury-prone running backs are nothing new in the meat grinder of the NFL. McFadden, however, belongs to a different genus, that rarefied group of playmakers whose flashes of brilliance make you wonder what he could do if only he played an entire season.
The 6'2" 210-pounder has owned the field when he's played in the past two seasons, surpassing 100 rushing yards on eight occasions, including four outings of at least 145 yards. He was leading the league in rushing with 612 yards last year when he limped off the field with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot early in the first quarter of an Oct. 23 loss to Kansas City. When he missed the final nine-plus games, it marked the third time in four seasons that he had failed to start more than seven times.
"It's football," McFadden says coolly, unalarmed. "I'm not going to take a play off just to try to avoid an injury. Injuries are a part of the game; there's nothing you can do about them. If there was a way to prevent them, I would love for somebody to tell me."
It would be easier to devise such a preventive health plan if McFadden's injuries involved muscles. Instead his major setbacks have been mostly bone-related. "Those are just freak things," says coach Dennis Allen.
And so McFadden carries on. He has been impressive in training camp, seemingly unencumbered by his rehabbed ankle. Whether it's turning the corner, powering through a crease between the tackles or catching passes downfield from Carson Palmer, his speed still elicits oohs and aahs from onlookers and teammates.
The importance to Oakland's offense of this return to form cannot be overstated. Over the past two seasons the Raiders are 6--2 when McFadden rushes for at least 100 yards. And in 2012 they desperately need his presence and production to offset a passing game that is comprised of mostly young, inexperienced wideouts. Any frustrations about McFadden's past are masked by excitement about a future that includes him.
"He's smart enough to know that there may not be a why for the injuries, so he takes it all in stride, knowing that he's going to do all that he can to stay healthy [this year]," says Lance Walker, who has trained McFadden for Michael Johnson Performance, an outside outfit, since 2008. "He's doing all the prehab, he's doing all the long-term preventive things that we've tried to dump on him. But he doesn't look back and say, 'Hey, what could I have done differently?' He doesn't get down in the dumps. He goes to work."
Sixteen games is clearly a goal that McFadden has in mind for himself. "The numbers could be amazing," he says, imagining a full season (chart, opposite page). "But I don't look to the future. I focus on the next game."
Across the country a division rival shudders at the thought. "Before he went down last year, he was the best in the game," says Bailey, the Broncos' 11-time Pro Bowler. "Just facing him twice a year, I know what he's capable of. And I know this: If he stays healthy a full year, he'll give us hell."
ED SZCZEPANSKI/US PRESSWIRE
SILVER AND BLACK (AND BLUE) The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, McFadden has yet to put together 14 healthy games in one season—in fact, he had more than seven starts only once, in '10.
KIRBY LEE/US PRESSWIRE
JOHN SOMMERS/ICON SMI (RAVENS)
MALCOLM EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE (COWBOYS)
COURTESY OF CINCINNATI BENGALS (WARREN)
TONY TOMSIC/GETTY IMAGES (ROBINSON)
JOHN KUNTZ/THE PLAIN DEALER/LANDOV (BROWNS)
JUST STAY HEALTHY, BABY
To say nothing of the Raiders' steadily improving playoff prospects over the past four years, one can surmise that a healthy Darren McFadden would have been a Pro Bowl Darren McFadden. SI projected his annual rushing yards across 16 starts per season.
QB Dewey Warren RB Paul Robinson
QB Roger Staubach RB Calvin Hill
QB Joe Flacco RB Ray Rice
0--7 record together; 506 passing yards, 0 TDs; 441 rushing yards, 4 TDs
5--2 record together; 465 passing yards, 2 TDs; 384 rushing yards, 2 TDs
10--5 record together; 2,712 passing yards, 14 TDs; 456 rushing yards, 0 TDs
Robinson would total 24 TDs in six years, but Warren didn't play past '68
In five more years paired up: 94 total TDs and one Super Bowl win, in '72
Started all but three games together in years since, with 33--15 record