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Oakland Raiders Darren McFadden (20) is tackled against Indianapolis Colts Gary Brackett (58) in the third quarter at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, December 26, 2010. (Nhat V. Meyer/ Mercury News)

NAPA -- For once, Darren McFadden wasn't fast enough.

A long pass sailed over McFadden's head, prompting Raiders free safety and resident court jester Michael Huff to ask, "You lost a step?"

It was earlier this week in the second practice for McFadden since he broke a bone in his left eye socket Aug. 3, and his presence pushed the session into a second gear.

In each of the past four training camps, McFadden has been the best player on the field, displaying what might be the most complete skill set of any NFL running back.

"He can do everything," reserve running back Rock Cartwright said. "He pass protects. He runs over guys. He makes guys miss. You can put him at wide receiver."

Yet it wasn't until Year 3 that McFadden's production in the fall approached his work in the summer.

McFadden rushed for 1,157 yards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry and caught 47 passes for 507 yards in 2010. He did it all in 13 games, missing Weeks 5, 6 and 17 because of hamstring and turf-toe injuries.

The breakout season came after McFadden combined for 856 yards rushing and averaged 3.9 yards per carry his first two NFL seasons after being the No. 4 overall pick out of Arkansas in the 2008 draft.

With just five runs of 20 or more yards and one of more than 40 his first two seasons, McFadden had 14 runs of 20-plus yards or more and four of 40 or more in 2010. He got better with more work, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt on carries 11 through 20.

What turned McFadden from a tentative back derisively nicknamed "McFalldown" by some elements of the fan base into a robust finisher of runs?

The easy answer is being healthy. McFadden had turf-toe injuries on both feet as a rookie and in his second year needed in-season minor knee surgery and postseason shoulder surgery.

But something else was missing, and Raiders coach Hue Jackson approached McFadden in the weight room not long after taking over as offensive coordinator before last season to find out what it was.

Jackson recalled asking McFadden what made him a Heisman Trophy finalist at Arkansas, and McFadden said some of his favorite runs were not in the Oakland playbook.

"He rattled off about three or four runs that he really enjoys, and I said, 'OK, they're in,' " Jackson said. "And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, no they're not.' And I said, 'Yes they are.' And that's what we did. And 1,157 yards later, that's who Darren McFadden is."

Under former coach Tom Cable, the Raiders were strictly a zone-blocking team, a style that calls for running backs to exercise patience before cutting back hard against the grain.

Jackson instituted more gap and power blocking, in part to benefit McFadden.

"I like to get downhill, make a move and go," McFadden said. "Every running back has certain plays and things they feel more comfortable running."

Reserve running back Michael Bennett, an 11-year veteran, compares McFadden's ability to recent Hall of Fame inductee Marshall Faulk -- a name also invoked by offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who coached Faulk with the St. Louis Rams.

"He hasn't had the numbers that a Marshall Faulk has had because he's still young and his career is in its early stages, but you can line this guy up anywhere, and it's a mismatch and a home run," Bennett said. "His skills are unbelievable."

As quick as McFadden is on the field, he is slow to say "I told you so" and outwardly displays no sense of pretense or entitlement.

Bennett and Cartwright call him "humble," and it's not uncommon to see McFadden give the same courtesy to a first-timer with a notepad or microphone as he would to a national media figure.

"That's the country boy in him. You treat everyone how you want to be treated," defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "With a game as loud as his, you don't have to talk. You've just got to go out and play."

Given McFadden's value, Jackson conceded it's possible McFadden won't play at all in the exhibition season. The broken eye socket was a bit of a fluke, coming during a pass-blocking drill when McFadden's helmet was pushed downward.

It was a minor setback and didn't prevent McFadden from conditioning and keeping his lower body in shape.

Injuries, which have taken away small parts of his three NFL seasons, seemingly are the only thing keeping McFadden from being in the forefront of any conversation about the NFL's elite running backs.

"I can see him having 2,000 to 2,200 all-purpose yards and 1,500 to 1,600 yards rushing," Cartwright said. "His main thing is to stay healthy. I think he's going to do like that. He puts in the work."