Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is giving a scouting report on the game's best running back last season.
"He's a great pass blocker, he's a great receiver and he's a great runner," Bailey said. "He can do anything you ask him to do. The dude is the real deal."
Adrian Peterson? Chris Johnson? Arian Foster? Maurice Jones-Drew?
Great guesses, but Bailey is speaking about Darren McFadden, the Raiders' explosive yet injury-prone standout who was leading the league in rushing through six weeks last year before sustaining a season-ending foot injury.
"Before he went down he was the best in the game," Bailey continued. "Just facing him twice a year, I know what he's capable of."
Bailey is not one for hyperbole. He is old-school, meaning respect is earned, not given. That he tosses out so many superlatives for a player who has been limited to seven or fewer starts in three of his four seasons -- and who has never played a full season -- speaks to McFadden's ability.
Drafted fourth overall in 2008, he surpassed 100 yards rushing just once in his first 26 games. But he followed that by eclipsing the mark in eight of his next 15 games, including four outings north of 145 yards.
It is those games, those flashes of brilliance, that simultaneously make McFadden one of the game's most breathtaking and most frustrating players. Instead of being able to discuss what is, we are constantly left to wonder what if when it comes to the Arkansas native playing a full season.
"I think about it sometimes, but at the same time I try not to think about it," McFadden said. "People will say, 'If you would have stayed healthy for 16 games you could have done this, you could have done that.' Me, I've always been the type of guy that takes it one game at a time. I know the numbers could be amazing, but I don't look to the future. I focus on the next game. Right now I don't even know who we play Week 2. I just know our first game is against the Chargers in the Monday night opener."
McFadden has grown irritated with questions and comments that insinuate perhaps he could have done more to avoid the toe, shoulder, knee, hamstring and foot injuries that sidelined him for 19 of a possible 64 games and limited him to just 32 starts. His major injuries have been bone-related, not muscle-related, so what more could he possibly do? Drink more milk?
"It gets very annoying," he says. "It's one of those deals you go out there and play football, go hard, and injuries are part of the game. There's nothing you can do about them. If there was a way to prevent them, I would love for somebody to tell me how -- whether it's training or what I need to eat. I would love to take that advice. But this is football. I'm not going to take a play off just to try to avoid an injury. I just go out there and go hard every play."
The reality is that McFadden can't work any harder than he does, according to Lance Walker, who has trained McFadden each offseason since 2008. The two reunite each summer in McKinney, Texas, at Michael Johnson Performance, to recalibrate and tune up his body for the season.
"The thing we learned with D-Mac very early on is that he has two speeds when he trains -- on and off," says Walker. "There is no modulation with him. We can be doing something as simple as basic buildup sprints and I'm having to tell him to choke it down a little bit because this is only Week 2 or 3 of a 12-week cycle. But he's out there just blowing things out.
"He's a competitor. He doesn't want to miss a game. But he also doesn't sit around thinking, Why did I get hurt? He's smart enough to know that there may not be a why. So, he kind of takes it in stride that he's going to do all he can to stay healthy the next year -- and he does all the little things. He does the pre-evaluation screens where we go in and study his functional movement and check every little movement pattern that might have flaws in it. We try to improve that score each year, and each year he comes in higher and higher. His functional movement screening, which is what everybody kind of hangs their hat on in the NFL, has elevated to where it's one of the highest incoming scores every year. So it's not that he's not taking care of himself. He's doing everything he can to minimize that injury risk."
So much so that when Walker gives him a treatment plan that includes 10 or so extra exercises, McFadden asks for one or two more. He arrives early and leaves late, usually with a smile on his face. As defenders have learned in the past two years, he is not easily brought down. "That's just the way he is," Walker says. "He doesn't sit around and get all down in the dumps. He's more of, What can I do today to get better?"
McFadden is openly excited to be back on the field. He was off to a great start with 612 yards rushing through six games last season, when his foot twisted awkwardly beneath the pile while being tackled. The play appeared innocuous enough from afar, but McFadden wound up displacing a bone that would sideline him for the year. In his rookie season he was slowed nearly all year by turf toe.
"It hasn't been soft-tissue things, for the most part," he says. "So there really isn't much you can do about it. It's one of those things, I guess, where you go out there and train hard, put in the work but you get injured. You've just got to keep your head up and keep working hard and try to get back on the field."
The closest he has come to a full season was 2010, when he played in 13 games and ran for 1,157 yards while catching 47 passes for 507 yards. His presence in the backfield is key for the Raiders, because the team has no established backup and is largely inexperienced at the wideout position.
Look into McFadden's eyes and there is a confidence that might not have been there his first two seasons, when he seemed unsure and tentative. But that changed when Hue Jackson took over the offense in 2010 and fit it to McFadden's talents.
"Hue really built up my confidence. He got my feet wet as far as going out there and putting up numbers," McFadden says. "I feel like once you're playing with confidence you can go out there and run the ball in any offense. I don't feel what we're doing this year [under new coordinator Greg Knapp] -- going from a power scheme to a zone-blocking scheme -- is going to make any difference. For the most part that was our offense in college, one cut and go."
And if McFadden is able to go for a full season, what then? Says Bailey: "If he stays healthy a full year he'd give us hell. He's the real deal."