With the benching of JaMarcus Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski against the New York Jets following Russell’s three first half turnovers, lets take a look back at what went wrong with the number one overall selection of the 2007 NFL Draft.
The Oakland Raiders entered the 2007 NFL Draft following their 2-14 regular season, which netted them the first selection. They were looking for a franchise signal caller that could lead them back to the kind of success they had during the Rich Gannon era. The tools on both sides of the ball were thought to be in place, but the quarterback was the one thing that kept them from being a year in and year out contender. They opted for the player that made scouts drool when it came to physical ability in JaMarcus Russell. His power arm was raved about in ways that talent evaluators never had before. The size, strength, athletic ability…it was all there. Sure, he was only a two year starter that bypassed his senior season, but the ceiling was just too high for the Raiders to pass on. In a draft where they could have chosen anyone from the likes of Patrick Willis, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, and Joe Thomas, Russell was their man.
Russell’s first ever NFL head coach was just ten years older than him and was also coming into the league as an under-experienced college football contributor. Lane Kiffin had spent the fall of 2006 as Southern California’s offensive coordinator, however Raiders owner Al Davis handed him the head coaching position. Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp however had six years of playcalling experience. Following his rookie year, Russell was put in a position where he saw his first head coach leave. Kiffin and Davis got themselves in an affable, public PR nightmare of a dispute which resulted in offensive line coach Tom Cable being named as the team’s interim head coach. Knapp did stick around for Russell’s sophomore campaign but decided to join former colleague Jim Mora in Seattle for the 2009 season. It’s been a roller coaster for Russell when it comes to his coaching relationships and it peaked in 2009 where he lost his playcaller along with quarterback and wide receiver position coaches.
While the Raiders organization as a whole may very well be the laughing stock of the league, there is some talent on that roster that could be part of a winning team. The problem is there has not been enough continuity with Russell to work with early on. If you look around the league and examine the top quarterbacks, you will notice how guys like Manning brothers, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger grew into stardom. They had, for the most part, the same guys around them on the field. The chemistry developed playing side by side week in and week out is part of the process that cannot be measured in numbers. Football is a game where big plays are results of a feel or a vision that is shared by multiple players. That cannot happen when the targets you throw to or the blockers in front of you play the act of a revolving door.
On top of inconsistent personnel, Russell has yet to have a big time playmaker to work with. Peyton Manning grew up with Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. Eli Manning had Plaxico Burress and Tiki Barber. Carson Palmer had Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh. Ben Roethlisberger had Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. Russell, now in year number three, has never had a player on the field with him that the opposition needs to formulate a gameplan around. While running back Darren McFadden and wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey are top ten picks with an abundance of talent, they aren’t guys that take pressure off Russell. The only veterans he has thrown to that have had any lick of success in the past have been Javon Walker and Jerry Porter. Porter was released after the 2007 season and Walker has been a non-factor since 2006 because of multiple knee injuries. On top of that, the group players responsible for keeping pass rushers out of the pocket have been inconsistent at best. While the quarterback position is by far the most vital to a team’s success, there are ten players on the field with him for a reason. With that said, it is fair to say Russell has not done everything in his power to excel the way a number one pick should.
Ask any personnel evaluator across the league if JaMarcus Russell has a top five arm, and most if not all will reply “yes” without hesitation. The power he can put behind a pass cannot be matched by, possibly, any quarterback in the NFL. It is a gift that he unfortunately does not know how to use. While he can wow scouts by throwing a ball 60+ yards from one knee and 40+ yards sitting down, he has yet to wow anybody on gameday. Arm strength is such a miniscule part of the bigger picture and while making the throws on a rope can be beneficial, it is the decision when and when not to use the power that makes the quarterbacks with strong arms effective. Russell’s ability to read a defense, look off a cover man, avoid pressure in the pocket, and deliver a throw to the numbers of his target simply is not there. He has zero awareness within the pocket and that internal clock that tells a passer when to get rid of the ball is either broken or does not exist with him. Instead of knowing where each and every one of his targets is going to make the break in their route, he is often staring them down waiting for it to take place. He then releases the ball, if he is not already on his back, and hopes his arm strength will make up for the late release. In college that can work but the speed of the NFL defenses and the amount of preparation the players dive into prior to each game makes that possibility nearly non-existent. Those are rookie mistakes and they are still being made in year three. That lack of progress can be attributed to any of the mentioned topics above but one thing and one thing only stands out.
There have been several reports from valid sources that Russell has been flirting with the 300 pound mark at different points throughout his career. While his 6’6” frame can handle a lot of weight, the 300 pound region is reserved for the guys that start each play with their hand in the ground. A professional athlete is paid to keep himself in peak physical condition and it is fair to say Russell has only gone south in terms of his work ethic when it comes to his body since being drafted. That only begins the criticism of his lack of dedication to being the best. Listen to what coaches and team officials say in regard to the preparation habits of the Manning brothers. They rave about the mornings where they are there before the coaches and the nights they are there after the cleaning crews to watch film. They talk about their dedication to the backup receivers after practice where they spend an hour going over the route tree with them over and over again. What do we hear about Russell? Being a quarterback is a 9-5 job to him where he tries to get home early on some days. He is often asking his teammates which route they’re supposed to run on a given play. There is a reason so many quarterbacks have that ‘C’ on their jersey that stands for captain. They are supposed to be the leaders on and off the field. The Raiders are at the bottom of the barrel right now in the NFL and it is not a coincidence that Russell is one of their so called leaders. The passion is not there. The work ethic is not there. And several of his teammates are following.
Considering all of the issues that have been discussed here, the problem starts and ends with JaMarcus Russell himself. Could he be in a better situation? Of course. The coaching has been mediocre at best. The supporting cast has yet to find a hint of consistency. However Russell has not done everything in his power to lead the Raiders back to glory. When the work ethic isn’t there in the weight room, on the practice field, or in the film room, let alone all three, progress will not be made in this league no matter how far you can throw a football from one knee. Everyone in the NFL has an abundance of talent. The ones that look to improve themselves on a daily basis happen to be the ones that succeed. That is not a coincidence, it is a direct correlation. Until Russell realizes that, he will either be the signal caller of a bad football team or even worse, on the sidelines with a great seat watching NFL football week in and week out.