When it comes to making strange draft choices, Al Davis is perhaps the league's headmaster. When it comes to personnel decisions, he's often seen as a head case. The decision to draft JaMarcus Russell as the #1 pick in the 2007 draft was, at best, fraught with peril. In retrospect, the decline of the decision was easy to spot and hard to support. But it's the way that Russell has personally taken responsibility for the trashing of his own career that is really worth a second look. JaMarcus Russell is the poster child for how to not be successful in the NFL. On that basis alone, it's worthwhile to tell his story.
Russell was only a junior when he took the country by storm. He was a highly productive college quarterback. At the Sugar Bowl, he was able to sit on the turf and to throw the ball 40 yards in the air. Impressive as that may be, there is small demand in the NFL for a QB who can throw while sitting down. It's throwing while standing up that seemed to be the problem. But at that time, Russell had a good completion percentage and could throw 85 yards through the air, according to some reports. Were there signs that he might struggle at the pro level? The simple answer is, yes.
From the War Room at SI.com - Their review of the upcoming Broncos/Raiders game:
3. Find the passing game. Russell was nothing short of awful through two games. Still, Cable must rely upon Russell a certain amount. It's imperative that Cable design a game plan that puts Russell in prime passing situations. He can do so by calling a majority of the pass plays in non-obvious situations such as first down and second- and third-and-short. Russell is at his best when he is in the pocket and throwing in the middle of the field. Cable must recognize this and call the game accordingly.
Ok, that's a fair analysis. Of course, the Broncos have this pretty well worked out, too, but it's still something to go on. But, it got me to thinking: where did the issues with Russell arise? Could you reasonably foresee the issues that he is having right now back when he was drafted? A little research told me that the answer is that in some - nearly all - of his predraft reports, you could see why he should have come with big red flags. The Sporting News gushed,"Has the best arm in football -- college or pro!" If you can get this kind of QB, they claimed, you just have to pull the trigger. But, there was a catch. In fact, there were a few of them.
Russell wasn't NFL ready, even by the laudatory standards of TSN. They went on to say, "...while he will need a season or two to begin to play up to his ability, he has the tools to lead the Raiders out of the doldrums and to the promised land. A bonus is that he has the size and strength to hold up to the pounding he'll take behind Oakland's weak line and the athletic ability to avoid some sacks and make big plays out of nothing." So, they were using the first pick in the draft for a player who wasn't ready for the NFL and had a long history of wildly inaccurate passing when under pressure. He didn't make the best decisions on the field, either. But he would 'Take them...to the promised land'. Sadly, they didn't say which land the raiders were promised.
Vinnie Iver didn't see it the same way. More rationally, he said,
"Even with the unpredictability of Al Davis, this has been a pretty predictable pick since Russell's terrific Sugar Bowl. Russell will be called upon to start right away for a putrid offense, which won't allow him to gradually develop and will hurt his ability to reach his full potential -- see Tim Couch, David Carr and Joey Harrington."
This would turn out to be prescient. Despite the obviousness of JaMarcus' maturity issues, the raiders wanted a QB that they could put in right away, an anointed one, so to speak. It really wasn't hard to see that Russell had problems with maturity on and off the field, but the raiders were entranced by his 'big arm'. They didn't seem to recognize that being a successful NFL quarterback involves more than throwing the ball a long distance. Steve Corkran chimed in,
Russell has the size, mobility and arm strength that new coach Lane Kiffin feels is well suited to the offense he is installing.
But then Kiffen went out in a blaze of gory (and that's not a typo), and with him the exact offense that Russell was so desired to play. The plot thickened.
Following a lengthy holdout and a few months of learning the playbook, Russell started in his first NFL game in late December against the division rival San Diego Chargers. He quickly showed that it was premature - Russell was intercepted twice by linebacker Stephen Cooper, the first of which was his very first pass as a starter for the Raiders. He also lost a fumble, in all, leading to 17 points for the Chargers. With hardly a line worth the name protecting him, Russell was injured on the play that produced his second INT and left on a cart. Andrew Walter replaced him at the start of the third quarter. Russell did however, manage to complete 23 of 31 passes for 224 yards with a touchdown on a 32-yard pass to Jerry Porter. It would be one of his best performances.
Oakland had, in my eyes, made one of the worst mistakes that a team can make: They wanted a player so badly that they didn't look at him, examine his skillset and determine rationally exactly how he could help them and how to bring him along to help him be successful. In a franchise where the head coach rarely seemed to finish a season, they bet the farm on a young man who had never exhibited NFL skills. Russell has always tended to bad decision making and that can ultimately mean a lot more than a 'big arm'. They drafted a player to play right away, but the player wasn't ready for the NFL. Regardless - Oakland didn't have anyone else.
One of the determining factors that I've observed with young QBs, right out of school, is how well the team is set up to support him. Has he finished school, or is he more mature than other men of his age? How is the coaching? Is it stable? Will the same offensive system be there next year? Do they have a QB coach who is more than average? Those things matter. So does the condition of the offensive line and the receiving corps. The play isn't playing by himself. He needs time to throw and targets to throw to. He also needs a rushing attack to balance out the offense and to keep the defense honest. Of all of these factors, Oakland had some good running backs on offense - that was demanded by Al Davis. But really, other than some big question marks at receiver, that was it.
I ran a short timeline to get a picture of the situation.
2007 - Going into his first training camp, Russell held out for more money. By itself, that isn't a terrible thing - the average career is 3-4 years and it's the one time that he may get this kind of money, especially if he keeps up his current pattern of play. But when he arrived in camp, he was terribly out of shape. He hadn't done anything to prepare for his new career and that by itself should have been a major red flag to the raider's organization, especially with his weight and conditioning issues in college. Russell would have to be watched carefully. He wouldn't play until the end of the season, for reasons of weight, conditioning and a slow pace in picking up the raider's system. Over the games that he did play, he was not a particularly good quarterback, but again - his predraft report had said to expect that. He participated in four games but only started one - the one where he was injured, in part due to his O-line failing to block well for him.
His final QB rating was 55.9, with 2 TDs and 4 INTs You could put a lot down to youth and inexperience, but Russell trashed his first season as an NFL QB. He held out perhaps too long, came in out of shape and unprepared, showed a lackadaisical attitude, didn't get up to speed quickly, and did not seem to have a high information processing speed, or IPS. The hand-writing was on the wall, but it was too uncomfortable to read it. The raiders decided to trust in fate.
2008 - Coming into camp, Russell was reportedly heavy and out of shape again. He has contested this belief, but it comes from so many 1st hand sources that his protests ring somewhat hollow. At the time I wrote that a lack of understanding that maintaining an offseason regiment that permits you to enter training camp in better shape than you left the game is one sign of a player who won't be in the game long or who will fail to achieve their potential in terms of effective play. I was referring to injury, but it turned out to be more than that. It was his first full training camp, so the fact that his progress turned out to be slow is perhaps understandable. But as the season wore on, Russell never showed any real signs of being a leader, on and off the field. He made a little progress, but not much. His old habits were entrenched and would require serious work to unlearn and to replace with good habits. Russell, to be honest, would never choose to put in that work.
This is the closest he came to being a real NFL QB, though. At the end of the season, he showed some signs of coming on, but that could just as easily have been a part of his boom/bust pattern as a QB - he's so inconsistent that you can't be tricked into accepting that his progress is real. His QB rating was 77.1, his completion percentage actually regressed slightly, from 54.5 down to 53.7, but he threw for 13 TDs against only 8 INTs. It was the only time that his yards per game stretched above 160; he notched 161.5 and 6.6 yards per pass play. Not Dan Marino numbers, but he was showing improvement. Just from reading his draft reports that was a good sign. Wasn't it?
2009 - In the offseason, there were once again issues with JaMarcus Russell. He wasn't huge when he came into camp, but to hear the observers, he wasn't in playing shape, either. JaMarcus was once again letting his life coast. The coaches pleaded with him to show up early, leave late, to work hard, to lead the team by example, but Russell seemed determine to ignore any and all advice. He would pay it lip service and continue in his set and effortless ways. He pretended agreement and talked pointedly about 'leading the team' and then missed a proposed practice. He would seem to be improving, for a while, but would never take the next step and become a leader on the team. He wanted his players to spend time working on routes and throws, but didn't show up for those sessions until it became a public humiliation. At that point, an accommodation was made, but no one really believed that it was sincere. Russell seemed incapable of seeing what it was that he had to do to be successful in his NFL career. If he wasn't deliberately sabotaging it, he was coming very close.
In training camp, the beat writers were merciless. Russell, they stated, was inconsistent, inaccurate and wasn't picking up any rhythm with the receivers. There was a consistent murmur that rose to a roar, a rogue wave of irritation, anger and hostility that swept over the city and drenched the pages of its papers. Russell, they claimed, was a rotten quarterback. In a desperate moment, the raiders hired old vet Jeff Garcia, a man with a lot of experience as a west coast offense quarterback and who still had the arm for the vertical game. There was one faction that claimed that he was there to mentor the young quarterback, to show him what it took to be a success in the NFL. The only problem was, Garcia still wanted to play and he wanted Russell's job. You don't tend to share the innermost secrets of the game with a man when you're looking to put him on the bench and establish yourself in his place. At the end of training camp, the raiders cut Garcia. If the gesture was meant to comfort JaMarcus, it fell flat. All it really did was to ensure that the raiders had no other options. It was Russell or nothing. After two games, 'nothing' was starting to look pretty good.
What does an NFL quarterback need to be successful? As the Broncos found out with Brian Griese, one of the keys is personality. There are many kinds of men who can be good QBs in this league, but they have certain characteristics in common. Shy, retiring quarterbacks don't tend to inspire their players. Kyle Orton manages to be quiet but impresses all by showing up first and leaving last. He is intense in the film room, the weight room and on the practice field. He isn't loud, but he is still a commander of men, a leader. Others are more vocal, but each has to take the reins in a forthright manner. When Griese was in Denver, his tendency to pull away and stay to himself was off-putting to the men who were his teammates and it cost him his situation with the Broncos. Interestingly, he was a 2nd year "Pro-Bowl" quarterback, but didn't find much success for a long time. JaMarcus Russell, when still in college, disliked the spotlight in a way that seemed somewhat extreme. NFLDraftScout.com said that he was a ''quiet sort who shies away from media attention." Since this was listed as a negative, it was apparently more than just a preference - it affected his role on the team even in college. It should have sent up a red flag, but like his other problems, it was ignored. By itself, there's nothing wrong with preferring anonymity, but there was much more.
Decision-making. To me, this is one of the keys to a quarterback's success. The ability to force throws in can make for exciting football, but unless the QB has unusual accuracy, it will usually mean a bad TD/INT ratio. That's been one of the stories of JaMarcus' career. He has always tended to make snap decisions, get impatient and generally show a lack of the calm and on-field maturity that he would need to become a successful NFL QB. He tends towards impatience.
At maximum growth potential and any more weight will affect his quickness... His weight needs to be monitored, as he will lose some of his agility when he hits the 260-pound range...Lacks the change of direction agility to make the initial tackler miss...Has a good grasp of the passing game, but sometimes gets too confident in his arm strength and will try to force the ball into tight spots...Is not a threat to run with the ball. ..Tends to get a bit impatient in the pocket and showed too much confidence in his arm strength, firing the ball right into coverage...Will hold the ball too long waiting for his targets to get open, resulting in a sack or costly fumble...Can make all the throws, but needs to take a little of his zip off his shorter area tosses...Cool under pressure, but will get impatient at times and force the ball in tight areas
Conditioning: Even back in college, Russell's weight was an issue. What is important as far as performance and development is that being heavy at this point in life tends to show a lack of personal standards, conviction and discipline. This continued to be an issue and seems unlikely to change. The raiders ignored a difficult fact - college athletes, young and in the best shape of their lives, who already have weight issues will tend to have them as pros. For a skill player like the quarterback, it's especially troubling - he wasn't being drafted first in the league to play guard. Quarterbacks also take a fearful pounding and need to be in excellent shape to absorb it and keep playing. Since Russell already had mobility issues, the extra weight was a major problem. Russell was also already in the habit of not thinking when he was in the pocket. He could not anticipate his receivers. He would get impatient and throw into coverage or hold the ball too long and take sacks. In general, he would do all the same things that he did in college when he got to the pros. Consider this quote:
"Russell has been criticized for holding onto the ball too long, waiting for receivers to break free. That also leaves him vulnerable to sacks, although the Raiders' offensive line this season has been solid in pass protection, limiting Russell to three sacks."
That quote was on nfl.fanhouse.com just in the past week. In other words, what Marcus Russell has learned as a professional quarterback is, in many ways, exactly nil. This is from the top pick in the 2007 draft. In Russell's defense, he isn't exactly Ryan Leaf either, but he still hasn't done much to improve and his stock is falling with each bad performance. As of today, his QB rating stands at 46.6.
The raiders passing game coordinator, Ted Tollner, had this to say this week:
"You can't wait till people are open. We made strides and last week we fell back in all those areas. That's disappointing to all of us and we've got to get back on track. The answer? I don't have the answer other than what I just said. It's a number of things that happen and there has been a major emphasis on him, on JaMarcus, we've got to give [him] a foot rhythm that allows [him] to turn the ball loose on time and [he needs] to buy into that. And he has, to repeat myself -- we were making strides and -- bam -- we stepped back, and I don't have the answer other than what I already said."
Unless this tall, strong and ultimately talented young man decides that he is going to change his attitude and approach, no one can help JaMarcus Russell. It's long past time for him to help himself. If he doesn't being to understand that his refusal to take his job seriously, to function as a professional and to treat the offseason as a chance to improve, develop and get into better shape, no one can stop his inexorable slide, ironically, into the black hole of player oblivion. After this, he may not be able to get a job , although it's amazing what teams will bet thaat they can change what others cannot. JaMarcus seems determined to prevent himself from becoming successful at any cost. And that, my friends, is a danged shame. His inconsistency has, at times, been tempered by periods when he seems to pull himself together, for a while, before sliding back to old habits and old results. The Broncos could face either version of JaMarcus.
Tom Cable said, "I fully expect him to break out of this very soon."
In theory, either JaMarcus could show up. That could work to the Broncos advantage. The only question is this: Which JaMarcus will step onto the field this Sunday?