As the Oakland Raiders take the field for one of the most important training camps in recent memory, a number of question marks are still hovering over the team. With parts of the roster still not set and competition in some spots expected to be wide open, there are a number of positional battles worth keeping an eye on. Most expect one of the most compelling camp battles to be waged between Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew for the title of “starter” in Oakland’s backfield. But it’s a fight, and a title, that will ultimately prove to be irrelevant in the bigger picture of what the Raiders are constructing. Regardless of who is labeled the team’s starter, the workload is likely going to be distributed fairly evenly between the pair.
Though they will battle through the summer for that title, the fact of the matter is that McFadden and Jones-Drew need each other. And to have success this season, the Raiders need them both.
GM Reggie McKenzie raised a lot of skeptical eyebrows when he re-signed the chronically injured McFadden this offseason. In his six years in Oakland, McFadden has yet to play a full sixteen game season; his high point coming in 2010 when he played in 13 games. That 13-game season was also his most productive. What makes his perpetual string of injuries all the more maddening are the flashes of brilliance and the home-run ability he possesses when healthy. McFadden has the potential to be a game-changer and the talent to score from anywhere on the field.
Prior to the 2012 season, Jones-Drew had been one of the more durable, reliable, and explosive backs in the NFL. The three-time Pro Bowler ran for 1,600 yards and took in another 400 receiving yards in 2011. An injury cost him all but six games in 2012, and even last year, despite the fact that he played in 15 games and ran for 800 yards, which would have led the Raiders, it was apparent that he didn’t have the pop or explosiveness he did in prior seasons, that the injury was still bothering him.
Though they both struggled last season–neither posting an average yards per carry over four–coming into the 2014 season, both are healthy and ready to compete. The early returns on the pair from HC Dennis Allen and OC Greg Olson have been encouraging, with Allen saying in a recent interview that the both of them “pass the eye test.”
“When you watch ’em practice, you see guys that still have explosion, guys that still have run skills, guys that still make people miss. I don’t pay a lot of attention to what the statistics might say. I just see what I see with my eyes, and I see two guys that if they can stay healthy, can still perform at a high level.”
But there’s the rub–if they can stay healthy. It’s also the reason that regardless of who is named the starter, that both McFadden and Jones-Drew desperately need each other. McFadden has yet to prove he can be the sort of back who will take twenty carries a game without breaking down somewhere along way. At 29 years old, and coming off of his own nagging injuries, not having to shoulder the entire load alone will probably be a big benefit to him at this stage of his career.
Splitting the bulk of the workload and not giving one the lion’s share of the carries over the other will keep them both fresh, their legs strong, and is likely to keep them both on the field–and out of the trainer’s room–for the entirety of the season.
Both have something to prove and carry huge chips on their shoulders coming into camp. But this camp isn’t about the battle, it’s not about being the man. It’s about figuring out how to best utilize both of their skill sets to Oakland’s offensive advantage.
McFadden and Jones-Drew need each other this season. And the Raiders need them both.