|Monday, December 3
Even the Raiders have their limits
By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com
Darrell Russell is one of the following:
The news that he faces a year's suspension after a positive test for Ecstasy puts him in a three-dimensional hell-maze with only three exits, two of which aren't exits at all.
The positive, which would be his second, plus a mark for skipping one test entirely, puts his football career at risk, and while Russell says he intends to appeal, there is something to the notion that the NFL would not have leaked the news if there was no positive test at all.
That is as far as we are willing to go here, because there is always the possibility that Russell is innocent. There is no discernible harm in the presumption of innocence, after all.
More to the point, though, is his future, which by any measure is dodgy at best and football-free at worst.
Russell, the Oakland Raiders' top draft choice of 1996 and, when right, one of the team's best run-stopping defensive tackles, has become the one thing a Raider cannot be -- unreliable.
The Raiders of old didn't care a whit about what players did off the field as long as they performed on Sunday. They were even somewhat flexible about practice habits. It was all part of the mythos, and it worked well for the better part of two decades.
More recently, though, head coach Jon Gruden has changed that mythos. He has taken the talented, given them structure and direction, and insists in his back-slapping way that they follow the program with some rigor.
Those who forget receive a visit from the dean of students, Rich Gannon, and guidance counselor Tim Brown.
Either way, the rules are clear. Show up early, go home late, work hard, and win.
Which brings us back to Darrell Russell.
That plainly won't do.
And if it turns out that he is innocent, the Raiders still will look at him as a liability of sorts, because he still will not meet their standard for reliability. Gruden has a very finite reservoir of patience for players who don't, and Russell rapidly is becoming pigeonholed as a wasted talent as surely as if he were Rickey Dudley.
Well, that may be a bit harsh. Dudley already has been pigeonholed as a minimal talent, run out of Oakland for indifferent devotion and asphalt hands. Russell's talent is hardly minimal; he led the Raiders in tackles Sunday against Arizona and showed more than mere flashes of what attracted them to him in the first place.
But will he be there tomorrow? Has he a drug problem that needs serious kicking time? Has he somehow crossed the league's hierarchy (always a question a Raider fan will ask)? Is he afraid of failure? Afraid of success? Just weak in an area where strength is paramount?
These are ten-cent psychology questions that carry little weight when asked by media genii, but hugely important ones when asked by an employer. Darrell Russell's employers are the Raiders, but the Raiders, while concerned about Russell the man, are as rigidly intolerant to absenteeism as ever.
It is unfair to say that Darrell Russell has hit a crossroads in Oakland. He may, in fact, already have passed it. But even if there is a way for him to resuscitate his career in Oakland, he will need to find a way to avoid the situations that put him in these jackpots. He has run out of sick time, and the Raiders plainly are running out of patience. They don't have to say so, either. Everyone just knows.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.