We take a momentary break from Donovan McNabb talk to consider if the Raiders are better off having committed their running game to two backs rather than three.
A year ago, running back position was considered the deepest position on the team.
Darren McFadden, having recovered from the turf toes which derailed his rookie season, was being counted on as an explosive lead back. In theory, the Raiders would run the ball so often that Bush, having gained 177 yards in the 2008 season finale against Tampa Bay, and Justin Fargas, their leading rusher since 2003, would also get their share of carries.
Al Davis was intrigued enough by how the New York Giants got big numbers out of Brandon Jacobs (1,089 yards), Derrick Ward (1,025) and Ahmad Bradshaw (355) that offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride got a serious look at the head coaching job that went to Tom Cable, and no doubt was quizzed extensively on how he did it. The Giants led the NFL with 2,518 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
Instead, the Raiders running game fell from 10th in the NFL 124.2 yards per game) to 21st (106.3), a steady drop from their sixth-place finish (130.4) in 2007.
McFadden got hurt again. This time he needed arthroscopic knee surgery which took four games away in the middle of the season. Two years into his career, McFadden’s health, as well as his ability to break tackles, are an open question. Bush led the Raiders in rushing with 589 yards and had the two best individual rushing games of the season (119 against Kansas City, 133 against Denver) but has privately coaches wish he was in better condition.
Fargas missed four games, two at the beginning of the season with a hamstring problem and the last two with a knee injury, and was released.
Cable indicated at the NFL owner’s meetings was the Raiders would be better off with two runners sharing the load rather than three, and that McFadden and Bush would compete for the starting job.
As far as 2009 was concerned, the two-are-better-than-three rationale didn’t wash in terms of stats.
In the eight games when all three running backs were active, Oakland rushed for 953 yards on 208 carries, a 4.6 average, and went 3-5.
In the eight games when either McFadden and Bush or Fargas and Bush were active, with the Raiders gained 747 yards on 202 carries, a 3.6 average, and were 2-6.
Gilbride is still in New York, while the Raiders new offensive coordinator is Hue Jackson, the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore last year when the Ravens had the league’s top two back system with Ray Rice (1,339 yards, seven touchdowns) and Willis McGahee (544 yards, 12 touchdowns).
In the end, the Raiders’ problems probably had more to do with training camp focus than the number of backs they used.
Cable was so intent on upgrading the Raiders passing game during training camp (unsuccessfully, until JaMarcus Russell was benched) Oakland lost its way on the ground.
They’ll need to rebound in that area to realize aspirations of .500 and beyond _ whether McNabb is the quarterback or not.