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Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) runs against St. Louis Rams defensive end Eugene Sims (92) in the third quarter at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

Raiders helmets hung from hooks at players' stalls Monday inside their quiet and messy locker room at team headquarters. At least 10 of those silver helmets bore aqua-colored scars from Sunday's collisions with the Miami Dolphins' headgear.

No helmet featured more aqua reminders than running back Darren McFadden's. Even his face mask was discolored.

No player is more vital to the Raiders' fading playoff hopes than McFadden. Not whichever quarterback starts. Not whichever coach (or owner or coordinator) is in charge. Not whichever cornerback gets burned.

"He, no question, is as good a runner as there is in football, and I think he's proved that," coach Tom Cable said. "We've got to get back to re-establishing who he is and what he brings to the table."

They need D-Mac back. They can't have D-minus, as in the running back who lost yards on his first three carries in Sunday's 33-17 loss to Miami.

McFadden embodies the Raiders' oversold revival. He was rushing for an NFL-best 108 yards per game a couple weeks ago -- a couple losses ago. Now, everyone is again wondering how good he is, how legitimate the Raiders could be.

He gained only 2 yards on eight carries against the Dolphins. A week earlier in a 35-3 rout at Pittsburgh, he had 14 yards on 10 carries. Do the math: 16 yards + 18 carries = 2 momentum-killing defeats.

That vanishing production is not all his fault. How can it be when he gets met by defenders in the backfield as soon as he takes a handoff? How can it be when defenses know the Raiders' passing threat amounts to zilch?


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McFadden put up big numbers -- stats long expected out of the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2008 -- during four of the Raiders' five wins this season. He missed that other win with a hamstring injury, an Oct. 10 game that snapped a 13-game losing streak against the San Diego Chargers.

Now he gets his shot against the Chargers this weekend. It is the biggest game of his career. The Raiders' playoff hopes had never been so alive this late in the year with him on board.

He is still on board, right? His post-bye week vanishing act explains the Raiders' offensive woes. He has never scored against the Chargers in three career meetings. That must change.

Of course, the shuffling of quarterbacks hasn't helped the Raiders offense, specifically in terms of the drama inflicted among the participants. Is this about Jason Campbell vs. Bruce Gradkowski, or is a power play at work between Cable and Raiders patriarch Al Davis?

Cable deemed such talk "foolish," insisting his quarterback roulette "is about winning." Either way, it all seems moot. Campbell likely will return to the starting role while Gradkowski sits with a bum shoulder, and Cable likely will remain on the eternal hot seat that comes with his job title under Davis.

Never mind all those fellas. McFadden is the compass directing the Raiders. He, after all, got them here -- that being two games off the AFC West pace with five games remaining.

Defenses know that stopping McFadden will force the Raiders to chuck the ball, a daunting task when neither quarterback is inspiring. Compounding that passing-game carnage is a raw receiving corps whose stock plummets without the full services of banged-up tight end Zach Miller.

"He's done so well that (defenses) are probably keying on him and trying to take him away," wide receiver Louis Murphy said of McFadden.

McFadden's eight carries Sunday: minus-2 yards, minus-3, minus-3, plus-2, no gain, minus-2, plus-6, plus-4.

Cable, in reference to those first couple carries for negative yardage, said: "That's a pretty good indicator we got a helmet in the wrong place or missed a cut or both."

Circus catches by rookie speedster Jacoby Ford won't scare defenses the way McFadden's running did earlier this season.

After producing only one 100-yard rushing game in his first two seasons, McFadden burst out of the gate this season. He ran for 365 yards combined during a three-game win streak that put the Raiders in a first-place tie during their bye week.

Say what you will about the Raiders' coaching, but it kept McFadden involved throughout Sunday's game. Aside from taking a couple direct snaps to try spicing up the offense, he caught seven passes for 63 yards.

But whenever he attempted a rush, it seemed like everyone in the Coliseum (announced crowd: 48,946) knew he was not going anywhere with the ball. The Raiders are not going anywhere but to the loss column if that continues.

Contact Cam Inman at cinman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/CamInman