Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver chronicles the emergence of Darren McFadden into the elite of NFL running backs over the past two seasons. While his success might seem highly probable given his 4th overall selection in the 2008 draft, McFadden's numbers looked more like a bust after two seasons. This SF Examiner piece before his breakout 2010 season represents an entire genre on "McFadden is a bust."
Mike Mayock was nearly the only draft guru who was not high on McFadden. His scouting report was that McFadden had issues with fumbles, had dead legs when hit, lacked a top end burst, and lacked the motion to juke defenders. Since being drafted by the Raiders McFadden has 8 fumbles to 5 touchdowns. He has has shown a tendency to go down on first contact. He has not been able to run away from defenders in the open field, nor has been able to go around defenders.
(While the article singles out Mayock's views as relatively unique, there were others echoing these statements. See this Bleacher Report rant.) Then the tide turn. In 2010 McFadden ripped off game long runs of 57, 51, and 49 with a long reception of 67, rushing average of 5.2 yards, and reception average of a huge (for a RB) 10.8 yards. In 2011, he has already added runs of 70, 47, and 41.
Silver highlights the critical change (and it has nothing to do with "more focus" or such babble):
Raiders coach Hue Jackson believes McFadden is “one of the best players in the league, period.” But before Jackson arrived in Oakland as former coach Tom Cable’s offensive coordinator in 2010, the buzz surrounding McFadden was mostly bad. For all the excitement he generated before the ’08 draft, a year after Peterson’s phenomenal rookie season, McFadden fell far short of expectations. His first two seasons were injury-plagued and unproductive, and he had trouble with fumbles, shedding defenders and keeping his footing. Shortly after joining Cable’s staff, Jackson called McFadden into his office and asked the young back what kind of plays he liked to run. A lot of opposing defenders around the league wish Jackson hadn’t. “It’s great,” McFadden says. “As a running back, you want to be able to try to do things you know you like doing.”
McFadden's emergence appears to stem from a better "match" with his offensive coaches from 2010 onward than before. This is a them I've explored before. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning might stand out in almost any environment as Brady has shown in shuffling through a variety of receivers. However, the complementary inputs (other players, coaches) can make a big difference in the performance of a given player. Drew Brees is another great example. Although he performed reasonably well in San Diego -- well enough that I'm still not quite sure why they viewed him as expendable -- his performance level ascended another step once paired with Sean Payton in New Orleans. In matching, luck plays a role and an even bigger role where one or both sides of the market -- buyers or sellers -- is thin.