The Raiders are headed toward the last quarter turn in need of a finishing kick if they hope to enter the 2009 offseason feeling as if they accomplished anything but another lost season.
Four more games, including Thursday night’s NFL Network telecast against the San Diego Chargers, who have beaten the Raiders 10 consecutive times dating back to 2003.
Four games for Darren McFadden, whose season was sabotaged by two cases of turf toe, to make some big plays and leave a lasting impression.
McFadden has missed three games outright and had at least five others where he was either injured or recovering from being injured. As a result, he trails six running back taken after him in the NFL draft in rushing.
The most productive rookies are Chicago’s Matt Forte of Tulane (second round, No. 44 overall) with 1,012 yards, Tennesee’s Chris Johnson of East Carolina (first round, No. 24 overall) with 958, Houston’s Steve Slaton of West Virginia (third round, No. 89 overall) with 904, Detroit’s Kevin Smith of Central Florida (third round, No. 64 overall) with 621, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart of Oregon (first round, No. 13 overall) with 586 and Baltimore’s Ray Rice of Rutgers (second round, No. 55 overall) with 423.
McFadden has handled the ball, rushing and receiving, far less than any of the above backs, with 87 rushes (for 405 yards) and 17 receptions (for 158) _ 104 touches out of 691 offensive plays the Raiders have run this season.
The good news is McFadden had a better fate than first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, the Illinois back taken No. 23 overall who had his season ended with a broken shoulder, or college teammate Felix Jones, whose torn toe ligaments terminated his season after 30 carries for 266 yards and an 8.9 yards per carry average.
Visual evidence suggests McFadden is as close as he has been all season to the back who had 164 yards on 21 carries against Kansas City in Week 2, the only time he has handled the ball more than 20 times in a game.
The Raiders have been careful to ease McFadden back into action rather than re-injure his turf toe, but it’s time to begin getting some use out of an investment that could total $60 million.
Coach Tom Cable estimated that McFadden was probably on the field for “30 or 35 of the Raiders 57 offensive plays against Kansas City.
Considering the Raiders’ offensive struggles, and McFadden being their most dangerous weapon, it’s hard to fathom why he ever leaves the field at all now that he’s somewhere approximating 100 percent.
As much as Cable believes Justin Fargas to be “one of the bricks in the foundation” of the Raiders, McFadden and Russell represent the future, and that’s what Oakland is looking toward with a 3-9 record heading into the last four games of the season.
Following the Raiders’ win over Denver, Russell talked about how much McFadden changes things merely because of his presence on the field. His location and position is the first prioirty of any defensive scheme.
Considering how little production the Raiders have gotten from their wide receivers, adding into the mix that Ashley Lelie is questionable because of persistent headaches and that rookie Chaz Schilens has been bothered by a bad ankle and Achilles’ tendonitis, it makes it that much easier to slide McFadden into the slot or have him split wide on plays when the Raiders are playing Fargas, fullback Luke Lawton, or both.
In that role, a reverse like the one the Raiders ran with Johnnie Lee Higgins becomes an option, with McFadden as the ballcarrier.
As it stands, McFadden hasn’t had more than 22 touches in a single game, that being the Chiefs game in Week 2. His next highest is 17, a week later against Buffalo, when he was slipping and sliding all over the artificial surface and struggling with turf toe.
Going into the last four games, McFadden ought to be seeing the ball a minimum of 22 times per game. With fifteen to 18 rushes per game, throw in five or more receptions, and McFadden can join the rookie party and give the Raiders a glimmer of hope toward next season.
Cable said the Raiders have been building toward giving McFadden an increased workload.
“To get everything put in you can’t just throw it in all at once,” Cable said. “You’ve got to progressive build it, build it, and we did that again this week.”
When asked if McFadden could be the most important skill position player, Cable still sounded inclined to spread things around as much as possible.
“With (McFadden) and JaMarcus continuing to get better, I think that nucleus right there, with Fargas running the ball so hard . . . then you just need a receiver or two to step up and make some plays,” Cable said.
Another option _ put McFadden to work. Run him out of the I formation, give him some toss sweeps as a single back, throw him screen passes, line him up in the slot and hit him in the seam. Make him the centerpiece of the offense for the next month.
And one more thing _ if you line up him up as the shotgun quarterback in the “Stallion,” “Wildcat” or whatever the Raiders are calling it, do something other than the option handoff with Fargas that has made the Oakland version of the formation inferior to those run elsewhere.
News and notes from Wednesday’s walkthrough:
— Center Jake Grove (calf) and Ricky Brown (groin) are out, with both players expecting to be back on Dec. 14 against New England. Grove said he is in the process of strengthening the calf and that it wasn’t quite right on Monday.
— Lelie is listed as questionable with headaches, with Cable being a little light on the details. He said he didn’t know if they were migraines, and said Tuesday he didn’t think Lelie was hurting because of a blow to the head.
If Lelie can’t play, it could mean more time for Johnnie Lee Higgins or Todd Watkins, unless Cable opts to move Schilens to split end from flanker.
— The only players on the Raiders who have experienced a win over San Diego are Nnamdi Asomugha, Justin Fargas, Ronald Curry, Marques Tuiasospo and specialists Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler. All were suited up for the 34-31 overtime win over the Chargers on Sept. 28, 2003, and only Tuiasosopo did not play.
The Raiders prevailed on Janikowski’s 46-yard field goal in overtime. Rich Gannon completed 26 of 43 passes for 348 yards and touchdowns of 36 yards to Tim Brown, 2 yards to Doug Jolley and 36 yards to Alvis Whitted, with Charlie Garner adding a 24-yard scoring run.
LaDainian Tomlinson was the center of the San Diego attack with 28 carries for 187 yards. He also had seven catches for 25 yards.
(That’s how you use a running back).
— The last time the Raiders won in San Diego was Dec. 14, 2002, prevailing 27-7. Gannon was 26 of 41 for 328 yards, with Tyrone Wheatley and Garner scoring on the ground.
Lechler, Janikowski and Tuiasosopo are the only current Raiders who were around for that game.
Regarding the 10 straight losses to San Diego, Cable said, “We’ve talked about it, and it really takes care of itself because of the division opponent, and the rivarly and all those things.”
— Schilens, a seventh-round draft pick out of San Diego State, will play his first NFL game in the stadium where he played his college games.
He had numerous ticket requests, but said he bought only eight because at 74 bucks a shot, “it was too expensive.”
— Kansas City defensive back Maurice Leggett ought to consider sending a latter of thanks to Cable for being named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his 76-yard return of a fake field goal attempt.