Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Breakdown of RB Darren McFadden

Seldom has a player been brought in by the Dallas Cowboys in recent years and subjected us to more discussions, debates, and polarizing opinions, than the March 13th signing of RB Darren McFadden to a 2-year, $3m deal with just $200,000 guaranteed.
Now, the very contract I just described is so small in terms of NFL guaranteed money that McFadden should be designated by anyone who follows this team as the type of guy that will have to make the roster out of training camp to assure himself of employment and compensation.  His contract is more than the league minimum and more than the deal the Cowboys gave another highly drafted and highly compensated former Oakland Raider, Rolando McClain, last season, but not by enough in NFL dollars to consider their situations too different.  Impress at camp and this can go places.  Confirm what the league thinks, and this could be over before September.
Basically, before we go down that road, we should all understand that the $200k guarantee is generally what you give 5th round picks - Devin Street in 2014 received $201k and Ryan Russell in 2015 just picked up about $203k.  And 5th round picks sometimes get cut in their first training camp and the team doesn't think twice about it.  I say all that to suggest that the amount of time we are all spending on the merits of McFadden at this stage of his career is probably inappropriate.  That said, I wrote 2,000 words on whether Ryan Williams can fix RB, and that is a guy who hasn't played meaningful snap in about 36 months, so I am clearly up for anything in June.
McFadden will turn 28 years old during training camp this year and is coming off a run in Oakland which had its moments, but those moments were surrounded by years that were disappointing and forgettable.  To demonstrate, I ran a search for every RB season of the last decade which contained at least 100 carries and searched by lowest average per carry.  The list below is the 50 worst seasons since 2005.  According to what I found, there are 44 different RBs on this list and only 3 show up multiple times.  Kevin Barlow and Trent Richardson both had 2 seasons each that were horrible.  But, McFadden is on this list 4 different times.  That is pretty remarkable.
McFadden 50
So, the two most basic questions that are being asked about McFadden's fit with the Cowboys are the following:
1) - Could anyone of reasonable quality run the football behind the Dallas Cowboys offensive line in 2015?
2) - Would anyone have had success in McFadden's circumstances in Oakland the last several years?
Well, we have no way of knowing the answer to the first question.  It sure seems, though, that with most opinions, confidence is high that due to the quality of the Cowboys offensive line, running the ball is expected to be successful in 2015 regardless of who is doing the running.  That remains to be seen, but no amount of arguing in June will resolve this.
But, Question #2 is a bit easier to break down because the Raiders did have other players running the ball and playing McFadden's job from 2012-2014 when he had worse productivity than every RB in football other than Trent Richardson.  Richardson's cumulative totals worse slightly worse, as you can see below, but those 2 were far worse than anyone in the sport for the 3-year window:
Trent Richardson '12-1461420323.3144.217
Darren McFadden '12-1448516203.3442.69
Again, Richardson didn't play for the Raiders.  So, we are discussing the merits of Cleveland's situation (with Indianapolis) versus Oakland.  Unresolvable.
However, he did have teammates.  Those mates did play behind the same offensive line that we have been assured were horrendous, the same Quarterbacks who were clueless, and the same coaches and ownership that were failures.  I have been told repeatedly that "nobody could run successfully in Oakland", which is a fun debate point.  Could they be right?
Well, luckily, we have 2 things to consider:  tape and stats.  Both can mislead, but together, they can provide the best mosaic that we can study until Oxnard.  And, it is also what the Cowboys must have studied to decide he was worth the small investment.  In a moment, we will examine the tape, but for now, let's check the numbers.  We will call his mates in Oakland over the last 3 seasons "the others".  They include: Rashad Jennings (2013), Marcel Reece (2012-2014), Latavius Murray (2014), Maurice Jones-Drew (2014), and Mike Goodson (2012).  These 5 players all received at least 35 carries each in the last 3 seasons in Oakland.  They are different players who do different things, but their collective results could be considered in our experiment as guys who ran in the exact same offense at the exact same time McFadden was putting up 3 seasons of sub 3.5 yards per carry.  So how do they compare?
The Others in Oakland '12-1437020485.53
D McFadden '12-1448516203.34
Hmmm.  That is disconcerting.  Hundreds of carries to consider, yet, anybody-but-McFadden averaged over 5.5 yards per carry or 2.2 more than each and every single run from McFadden?  Basically, he had 60% the productivity of each of his backup's runs - over 3 straight years. Here is something else to chew on: From 2012-2014, if you rank the 32 NFL teams by average yards per carry, you would find the Minnesota Vikings at #1 in the NFL at 4.93.  The Arizona Cardinals would be ranked #32 during those 3 years combined at 3.46.  So, the best is 4.93 and the worst is 3.46.  Now, look up again and see the results of "the others" in Oakland and McFadden.  Does that mean more now?  It should.
Ok, but were they the same threats as receivers?  He can do that, too.  How do his numbers as a pass-catcher compare to theirs?
The Others in Oakland '12-1420117938.92
D McFadden '12-14955786.1
Well, I guess that didn't yield promising numbers either.  Now, it is tough to compare 5 guys to McFadden, partially due to the fact that they are not subject to fatigue and injury in the same way.  But, in answer to the question of whether "anyone would have problems in Oakland", it appears that 5.5 yards per carry over 370 attempts might not fully agree with that assessment.
Now, let's move on from that (Oakland did) and focus on 2015.  If McFadden is part of this season, let's look at his recent 2014 film and try to decide what he does well and what he doesn't (and maybe what the Dallas front office sees).  Let's find a role for the former Razorback star.
I tried to make sure I looked at his entire 2014, but you should know going in that the Raiders commitment to him by this point was on rather shaky ground.  If you go through the archives of Raiders news you see a lot of talk about how he did not care for zone running schemes and that was blamed for his fall-off initially.
So, they wanted the old scheme back, instead of this ugly zone scheme that doesn't work with Darren McFadden.  You can imagine the question marks over Dallas-based readers on why their team would then have great interest in the man.
The fact that he was back in any capacity in this final year was unexpected as they had made the decision to let him walk after the 2013 season, but the lack of a free agent market brought the two back together for one final chance to make this work.
Above, please find McFadden's one "explosive run" (20+ yards) of 2014 in his 155 carries.  To compare, DeMarco Murray had 15 such runs, Latavius Murray had 4 in 82 carries, and Joseph Randle had 3 in 51 attempts.  1 in 155 is the worst in the league.  You can see there, he bounces it outside and then in the open field did have some burst to him that reminded you of the 4.3 guy out of Arkansas back in 2008.
Above, a simple inside run with a TE trapping the backside DE (we will come back to this concept) and McFadden gets what is blocked inside.  Read the center's helmet position and plant your foot and go.
Here it looks like the backside guard has a nice hold on 92-Mebane to spring McFadden for about 10 yards and again he looks reasonably mobile.  But, those linebackers close the gap in a real hurry in the NFL.  Especially in Seattle.
So, those were 3 basic runs that I thought went pretty well.  Unfortunately, there are many more to choose from in the other bin.  The runs that did not go so well for a myriad of reasons:
This one is a slow developing dance with the Seattle defense where it looks like the OL is getting its combo blocks set and the Seahawks are stringing things out.  This is what 2014 McFadden looks like - sort of a shuffle and a hope and then a half-speed run into the back of his line.  He doesn't see much and doesn't know what to do, so he ends up not doing much of anything.  There isn't much there, but we see this play dozens of times.
Here on this play in San Diego, once the outside linebacker crashes inside, it sure looks like the bounce outside has lots of daylight.  Instead, they hit the hole for 3-4.
Here is a play that is a much bigger run if we can get past the MLB at the hole.  But, KJ Wright isn't letting McFadden run through his arms.  Here is a case where McFadden is running with purpose and at full speed.  Just not enough power to bust through there.
The next few plays are McFadden's year in a nutshell.  They are not replays.
The cutback into the unblocked weak side DE (without the trap block from the TE coming across the formation).  We have seen LeSean McCoy making a living on that concept with lightning pace and a better sold run fake, but running the same plays do not always yield the same results.
McFadden has not had a good situation and it shows.  There is a feeling of a RB when he knows his OL is good and there is an opposite feeling when he knows going in that he is on his own.  The trouble is, running behind a bad line for too long can cause you to lose your vision, reckless abandon, and ability mentally - or edge - to be the RB you were at Arkansas or early in his NFL career.  I am reminded of the movie Top Gun where Cougar was hanging on too tight and lost his edge as a pilot.  He knew he had to turn in his wings at that moment because he cannot do his job if he has too much fear and is worried about worst case scenarios instead of his job.  I have always believed in that concept for QBs and RBs.  If they spend too much time seeing bad things, it is tough to be great again.  That will be something to watch this August.  Whether he still has the mentality to see the holes in a good situation, rather than allow the memories of 500 carries flood his brain at the moment of truth.
Ok, enough about that.  But, as a RB on 1st and 2nd down, I don't see his burst or his decisiveness at this point to put him in the same class as what the Cowboys need.  So, what do the Cowboys think he can do?
I believe the Cowboys think he is their 3rd Down back.  I don't think they want him running on 1st and 2nd down in their offense.  I think that will be Randle to start.  I think on 3rd Down with 11 personnel (remember, "3rd down" means 2-minute drill, 3rd downs, and even your come-from-behind offense.  3rd down back can mean 30 snaps in a game).
What are we looking for there?  Well, that means he can pass protect, receive, and run out of the shotgun on occasion.  I think in all of these, he can still be pretty good.
Let's look at him as the safety valve and tell me this isn't Demarco Murray-
Check and release and then get the yards you can.  Nothing wrong with that.
This is very promising, too.  Play-action, slip out, make a DB miss and get upfield.  I like this, too.
Here, the Raiders line him up in the slot and run him underneath with a shovel pass.  Again, he looks faster than he does as a runner from behind his QB, right?
How about pass protection?
He isn't perfect, but he is willing and able.  Here, he tries to block 2 players before the play becomes a mess.

Here, he takes on a linebacker and stands him right up in his tracks.  McFadden looks like he can replicate DeMarco Murray in this specific job.  He can handle all of the 2-minute drill/3rd down RB duties with ease, and unlike Lance Dunbar, teams won't instantly put blitzes on to take advantage of a 198 lb RB who is trying to pass protect.  McFadden can do that fine.
So let's circle back for the summary:  Do I think McFadden is the answer at RB?  No.  I don't think he is and tend to agree with the findings in Oakland.  With the same offensive line and offense, the Raiders preferred Latavius Murray to McFadden and over a sample of 800 carries and 3 seasons, we saw that McFadden under-performed the other options in Oakland.  I don't believe he is much of an appealing option on 1st and 2nd down zone runs.
But, what if I told you that for about the price of a punter, you could replace DeMarco Murray as Romo's blitz protector and receiving option on all of those huge moments on 3rd down and late in halves?  I think McFadden is instantly their best option there and should be fine.  In short, I believe he can be trusted to get his protection assignment blocked and then be a bit dangerous in the flat as a dump-down, security-blanket.
Remember, they are not trying to replace Murray with one guy.  That would be next to impossible with the candidates they have.  But, as a group, this might have a chance to be pieced together.  And after studying his season, I think I see what the Cowboys saw.

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