Saturday, November 20, 2010

SPORTS>>Arkansans, NFL appear a natural fit

By Jason king
Leader sportswriter

The influence of the Natural State on the NFL has been strong as of late.

Most notable is former Razorback and current Oakland Raiders running back Darrin McFadden, who led the league in rushing early this season before falling into a tie for seventh place with the St. Louis Rams’ Steven Jackson with 757 yards.

McFadden has been a strong part of the Raiders’ upsurge that has landed them atop the AFC West standings for the first time since 2003, tied with rival Kansas City at 5-4. McFadden came up with a pair of big, third-down plays to keep the Raiders going on what became their go-ahead drive to beat the Chiefs last week.

McFadden, a product of the central Arkansas area who went to high school at Pulaski Oak Grove, captured the imagination of every football fan in the state a few years ago when he was in serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy and finished second in the running two different times.

McFadden’s old teammate and dormitory buddy Felix Jones has found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum in the first half of the season as part of a Dallas Cowboys team that has been mired in injuries, coaching controversy and ultimately, lots of losing.

We were told to expect the Cowboys to make a Super Bowl run this season, especially with the event itself to be held in team owner and Arkansas native Jerry Jones’ new Taj Mahal of a stadium in Arlington.

But things have not quite worked out that way for “America’s team” with a shoulder injury to franchise quarterback Tony Romo and the recent firing of head coach Wade Phillips after the Cowboys got off to a lackluster 1-7 start.

Fans of Big D got a break Sunday when the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants for the second victory of their tumultuous season. But is it too late for Jones and the Cowboys, who are currently coached by former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, to reach the playoffs?

Jones became the ground-attack catalyst for the Cowboys last season after sustaining a year-ending injury early his rookie season, and is the centerpiece again this season.

But with only 353 rushing yards through nine games and another 258 from veteran Marion Barber, Dallas’ running game looks more like a sputtering, dissipating rain shower than an inline storm.

Conway native and former Hog Payton Hillis is another feel-good Arkansas story this year. Hillis — who began his NFL career in Denver and spent much of his time as a fullback for the Razorbacks blocking for the fleeter McFadden and Jones — leads the Browns in rushing with 726 yards.

Hillis has rushed for eight touchdowns, with a 48-yarder as his longest. But he has been one of the few bright spots for the Browns, who sit third in the AFC North standings with a 3-6 record.

Those are the three biggest notables of close to 50 players in the NFL with some kind of ties to Arkansas. There’s also former Little Rock Parkview Patriot and current Atlanta Falcon defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson and current Chicago Bears defensive back and former Little Rock Fair War Eagle Chris Harris, among many others.

And for those of us in this area, you can’t speak of the NFL without mentioning Jacksonville’s own Clinton McDonald, in his second season as defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals.

McDonald graduated from Jacksonville High School in 2005 and started for the University of Memphis for four years before getting picked up by the Bengals late in the 2009 draft.

McDonald earned his stripes on the Bengals’ practice squad in his first year, finally getting his first game experience two weeks ago against Pittsburgh.

McDonald also played against the Colts on Sunday and recorded his first, career unassisted tackle.