Much like the understanding that the NFL has become a passing league, it has also has adopted the “running back by committee” model. In a day and age where running backs seem to be a dime a dozen, teams are less likely to commit to one guy and therefore take on the RBBC approach to the season. With the mindset of having multiple backs sharing the touches, many also assume that each team needs a “speed back” and a “power back”. The idea, of course, being that the power back gets the tough yards and wears down the defense while the speed back plays the finesse role and provides the home run threat to the offense.
The last few years the Raiders have had the luxury of a backfield that consisted of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. In some ways, it seemed to be the perfect combination power and speed that would be a nightmare for any defense. Except when you break down the games when both running backs were healthy last year, you saw more of McFadden wearing down the defense and Bush playing more of a backup/short yardage role. Bush only averaged 7 touches per game through the first 6 games last season while McFadden was averaging nearly 22. With that stat alone, it’s tough to make any kind of argument that Bush had a big impact on games while McFadden was playing.
Of course Bush was also used as the short yardage back which lead many to wonder how the Raiders would convert short yardage plays without him. There is no doubting that Bush was pretty effective in short yardage and he proved that over the last three years by converting a respectable 42% (15 for 36) of his carries inside the 5 yard line for touchdowns according to Chet Gresham of writing for thefakefootball.com. However, with Bush getting most of the short yardage carries, it was assumed that McFadden couldn’t handle those duties when that is far from the truth.
Per the same data, McFadden has converted 7 of his 9 attempts from inside the 5 yard line over the last three years (78%). That conversion percentage is tops in the league for that statistic, meaning McFadden is more than capable of converting short yardage plays as well. Cedric Benson, who many have been calling for to replace Michael Bush, had a 31% (12 for 39) conversion rate from inside the 5 over that same span.
While McFadden possesses the speed and agility to turn any play into a home run, he certainly is not your prototypical speed back by any means. McFadden brings with him a wicked stiff arm and is not afraid to lower his pads and seek contact. Take a look at a few examples:
However, even though Darren has the ability to do it all, Dennis Allen will have to find the right balance between his running backs and not overuse him throughout the season. Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones are vying for the backup role and both have the ability to provide a spark off the bench to help keep McFadden rested, but neither bring much value to the short yardage game. Owen Schmitt and Marcel Reece will get a chance to show what they can bring to the backfield at times this year too, and both are capable of hammering out a few yards when needed. Lonyae Miller is also one to keep an eye on. Miller has a much more hard-nosed running style was impressive at times with Dallas last season. Be careful how quickly you judge the unknowns like Miller, because Arian Foster was also once an undrafted free agent.
When people talk about wearing down defenses, why is it that big backs always come to mind? Sure they can punish tacklers at times, but more times than not bigger backs are slower to the hole and can be bottled up and gang tackled before doing much damage. Speed backs on the other hand force the defense to always be chasing for fear of being a step late and giving up a potential touchdown on every play. You factor in a guy like Chris Johnson who can stop on a dime and reverse field and McFadden who can deliver a devastating stiff arm if you do finally catch up to him and you begin to reevaluate which one would wear you down quicker.