Endgame for JaMarcus Russell? Not yet
Don't underestimate the hubris of other coaches or GMs who think they can fix him
JaMarcus Russell to another NFL team? Absolutely. No doubt about it. If not today or tomorrow, then soon, and for a while longer, at least.
You see the beauty here to the 31 other teams in the league: Russell has been pre-disastered. He could derail only one franchise, and that deed is done. Taken strictly on the basis of whether he might contribute to an offense someday, evaluated solely as a free-agent signing with no special portfolio, Russell will get a look. Several looks, possibly.
It's smooth running from here on in. The storm has passed. Low buzz equals low risk.
And low risk almost always equals NFL curiosity, which is all Russell will need, really: a team with enough curiosity -- and precisely the right amount of ego -- to want to take a gander. It'll happen. That's how the NFL rolls.
Oakland's release of Russell last week was noted primarily for the astounding rate at which the former LSU star was paid to fail, which is both the glory and the blood spatter of fame. At $39.1 million over three lost seasons, the cash-to-heartburn ratio was historically high. Of course, that's the Raiders' problem, right?
Exactly so. When Russell was made the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, he could become a titanic failure for only one organization, and that was the team that drafted him. Sure, the NFL itself might wear a shiner resulting from Russell's face-plant -- and in fact, the quarterback's career "arc" already is being held up as Exhibit A in the case against the current rookie salary structure. But that's the risk you run with any top draftee, be it more or less obvious. (Don't forget how many experts rushed forward to authenticate the Raiders' selection of Russell as a great one on draft day '07, although I know how much those experts wish you would.)
As for the remaining teams, there's not so much risk. Not now. The worst that can happen to any GM or head coach now is that he lobbies for the right to bring Russell into camp for a few days or weeks, and the thing goes bad. At the rate they'd be paying him -- after clearing waivers this past weekend, Russell now can be signed at the NFL minimum for a fourth-year player, which is $620,000 for a full season or any prorated portion thereof -- he stacks up as a minimal risk. He's just a guy you bring in.
People are looking for a natural fit for Russell, which is crazy. There is no natural fit for a guy who just flamed out on a potential $68 million windfall. (He collected "only" $39.1 mil.) But that's not to say that eventually, some pieces won't fall into place. They certainly will.
There are a couple of great factors working here that people might fail to take into account. First and foremost, you could never go broke overestimating the ego of pro personnel people. Ego is what they do. The history of sports is absolutely choked by cases of players -- baseball, basketball, football, hockey players -- getting cut by one team and almost immediately being picked up by somebody else. Occasionally, it's a simple matter of need versus availability, but just as often, it's the he-didn't-perform-for-them-but-he-will-for-us hubris that drives so many executives through their days.
Russell almost ate his way out of the league while catnapping through team meetings? Yeah, maybe, but that wasn't when I was in charge. I'll get his attention. (Clap your hands if this means you, Coach Shanahan.)
Second, and this is critical, don't forget the Raider Discount. This is a much simpler premise. It holds that because Russell was in Oakland and not anywhere else in the NFL, you can't really tell much from the fact that things ultimately went blooey.
People around the Raiders are used to hearing this. Randy Moss was terrific in Minnesota, hideously terrible in Oakland, then suddenly fine again in New England. DeAngelo Hall was a Pro Bowler in Atlanta, a colossal eight-game bust in Oakland, then suddenly a solid contributor again in Washington.
For that matter, players often receive second and third chances even in cases in which their career bust falls clearly upon their shoulders. You hear Ryan Leaf's name invoked all the time on the subject of Russell, and Leaf had stops in both Tampa Bay and Dallas after his spectacular fall in San Diego. Again, that's the nature of the beast.
None of that has much to do with Russell, really. The Raiders, it's true, had a lousy offensive line and a suspect receiving corps for much of the time Russell was around, and they switched head coaches and offensive coordinators. But all that adds to less than half the responsibility for the Big Fail, and Russell -- undermotivated, late to meetings and generally lacking anything resembling field leadership -- is on the hook for the lion's share of the blame.
Still, that might not be how it's perceived around the league. The equivalent of Operation Save Ferris already is under way. Former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, who did not want to draft Russell, nevertheless called him "a great kid" and told the Los Angeles Times that being cut from Oakland "could be the best thing for him." Russell's former college coach at LSU, Les Miles, and his offensive coordinator, Jumbo Fisher, have sent ringing good wishes across the country via interview.
When the point of departure is the Raiders, ye olde discount comes into play. Combine it with a healthy splash of executive ego, the absence of any real franchise risk and a cost factor that is more than reasonable by NFL standards given Russell's skill set, and you've got the makings of an easy invitation to camp.
See you down the road, big fella. Your story doesn't have an ending yet.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at email@example.com.
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