How the Zone Blocking Scheme Impacted Darren McFadden and the Raiders

Can Darren McFadden return to 2010 form under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson?

I was stuffed. I had just eaten two portions of chicken saag and naan at a local Indian joint, and had a pretty big lunch earlier in the day. And yet, even after I had taken off my belt to ease the pressure on my stomach, I was about to eat more. I was about to eat a slice of birthday cake.

There’s no doubt I’d be regretting it.

It’s like Darren McFadden. Yes, eating a slice of cake after an Indian dinner is like Darren McFadden. Perfect at the time of action, enjoyable for about 30 minutes, but then it hits you: “What have I just done?”

The Zone Blocking Scheme Story

Darren McFadden was awful last year. And when I say awful, I mean ‘one of the worst in the league’ type of awful.

Plenty of people point to offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s newly-instituted zone blocking scheme as the reason for McFadden’s 2012 failures. Essentially, the scheme forced McFadden to move a little more laterally as opposed to his standard downhill style. The result was a 3.3 yards per carry average on 216 carries and just three total touchdowns.

For a player who had performed at a fairly high level over the two seasons prior, the numbers in 2012 were a massive disappointment. Sure, McFadden has never played an entire season in his career, but when he does play, he typically executes. Not in 2012, and many believe the Greg Knapp-enforced zone blocking scheme is the reason why.

Let’s see what the numbers say.

The Power Blocking Numbers

The exercise is fairly simple: Let’s look at DMC’s 2010 and 2011 seasons and compare them to 2012. But as usual, I won’t use raw data to form the arguments; we look deeper than that here at numberFire.

In 2010, McFadden finished ninth in the NFL amongst 100-plus carry running backs in rushing net expected points per attempt. To put this another way, every time DMC carried the ball that season, he contributed more points to his team’s output than all but eight other runners. That was the year he was a fantasy football unicorn, so his tremendous efficiency makes sense.

As a team, the Raiders were just as good that year, finishing fourth in the NFL in adjusted rushing efficiency. The “adjusted” piece of that equation takes opposition into consideration, so don’t think they just had an easy schedule. Again, it makes sense when you consider how well McFadden ranked, and of course, football is the ultimate team game. The Raiders were adding .06 points per play on the ground at that time, which was better than Kansas City, the league leaders in rushing yards.

Now, if you recall, McFadden played in just seven (you could argue six) games the following season (2011), toting the pigskin 113 times for 614 yards. Though he only participated in a portion of the season, he once again ranked ninth in rushing net expected points per attempt among runners with 100 or more carries. It was, and would’ve been, another solid season running the ball in a power blocking scheme for McFadden.

If we dig into what the Raiders did in terms of adjusted rushing net expected points per play in 2011, you see a drop in efficiency after McFadden ended his season. Once Week 7 concluded, which was McFadden’s last game, the Raiders ranked seventh in the NFL in adjusted rushing efficiency. After the season ended, Oakland was sitting in the 13 spot. Significant? Not hugely, but it should be noted, especially because we’re able to see what happens to a team with a replacement player (Michael Bush) in the mix.

That was all under the power blocking scheme. McFadden was a beast on the ground in 2010 and 2011, despite his fragile bones, and Oakland was one of the most underrated running teams in the league. In 2012, the story was different. Well, other than the whole “fragile bones” part.

The Zone Blocking Numbers

Guys, you could argue that Darren McFadden was the worst running back in the NFL last season. The worst. Ryan Mathews was better. Shonn Greene was better. Your grandma, my dog…they were both better.

McFadden ranked dead last among 100-plus carry running backs in terms of rushing net expected points per play last season. Every time DMC touched the rock in 2012, the Raiders lost .19 points to their score compared to an average runner. Sorry, Raider fans. I know you’re aware it was rough. I’m just putting a number to it.

Keep in mind that we saw a decrease in Oakland’s rushing efficiency when McFadden missed games under the power blocking scheme. But under the new design, the team’s adjusted efficiency rose after DMC got hurt. At the end of Week 8, the game McFadden went down, Oakland ranked last in the league in the adjusted rushing net expected points per play. They were losing .23 points every time they ran the ball versus the average. Yikes.

While McFadden was out, the team’s adjusted NEP per rushing attempt increased by .05 points. And though their rank changed minimally, Marcel Reece, McFadden’s replacement, actually had a positive efficiency score via the rush last year. It’s not to say that Reece is this All-Pro runner who should be on everyone’s fantasy team. Rather, it’s showing that a substitute like Reece was actually more effective in the Raiders zone blocking scheme last season than a previous top-10 running back. That has to say something about McFadden’s play under Knapp.

What DMC Can Do In 2013

A guy named Greg is coordinating the Raiders offense this upcoming season, but his last name isn’t Knapp. It’s Olson. Knapp was fired after just one year as the Raiders offensive coordinator, and the numbers above are probably a good reason why.

Olson – not “Olsen” like the Panthers tight end – is bringing sexy back. The power blocking scheme is making its way back to the Black Hole. No player is more excited than Darren McFadden.

Given McFadden’s success under a power design, I think it’s safe to think he can return to his 2010 and 2011 form. The problem, as always with McFadden, is his health. Counting on him for a 16-game season isn’t a smart thing to do, as he’s never played an entire yearly NFL schedule.

Perhaps your league mates aren’t aware of the switch in Oakland. Maybe they are, but they may not understand the true impact it’s had on McFadden. Regardless, if they’re low on the DMC entering 2013, it could be advantageous to snag him in your fantasy draft. His current average draft position is in the middle of Round 3 in standard 12-team leagues, but if people perceive him as dead weight, McFadden could end up being a draft day steal.

Look, I wouldn’t bank on DMC for 16 games. But keep in mind that 12 or 13 contests of elite running back play can make a bigger difference in fantasy football than 16 from an average runner. It’s not as though you’re leaving your running back slot empty when McFadden is out, right?

As of now, we have McFadden listed to capture about 1,400 total yards and nearly six scores. With the power blocking design back in Oakland, there’s a chance that DMC could return to that elite status and exceed those metrics. You just have to be willing to believe in the scheme.