Russell already wowing Oakland teammates

Although he still has to win the starting job, Raiders rookie QB JaMarcus Russell is already winning over his new teammates, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: May 7, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- As he stepped onto the Raiders' practice field Friday, JaMarcus Russell could take comfort in one small thing. No one asked him for his birth certificate. Finally, the biggest quarterback on every campus he has been around was surrounded by comparable bodies.

Russell is 6-foot-6, 254 pounds. From grade school through college, he towered over his competition. Bigger is always better growing up. Bigger means being unstoppable. He set the Alabama high school passing record by throwing for 10,744 yards at Williamson High in Mobile. He had a pro body as an amateur.

"Since I was a kid, I was bigger than everybody," Russell said. "I was always taller. Believe it or not, playing park ball, my mom, she kept my birth certificate around. People said I was older than what I looked."

Russell-type bodies aren't uncommon in the NFL, but he still looks rare. "Daunte Culpepper in the offseason walking around the gym playing," Warren Sapp said when asked whether he had seen anything that compared to Russell. "They are about the same size, but nah, nothing like that I've ever seen. I've hunted a couple, but nothing like that. That's something special."

What makes Russell so special to the Raiders is not only the size but the big arm. People say quarterbacks with strong arms have rifles. Russell has a bazooka for an arm. He mounts that bazooka about his tall shoulders and launches passes that sail like missiles. Raiders scouts and others around marveled at his LSU workout in March when he put on a throwing exhibition they hadn't seen since John Elway in 1983.

As a former Steelers beat writer, I was spoiled by the throwing of Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw held the football by the tip and fired spirals that would tear up hands if receivers didn't concentrate. Bradshaw's passes were pretty. Rarely did you not see a perfect spiral.

"If nothing else, we're going to learn to catch with our hands or somebody's going to the hospital for some trauma. That kid's got a live arm, so let's have some fun with it."
-- Warren Sapp

Russell gave me some flashbacks to Bradshaw. Some of his long throws Friday were held up a little by the wind, but Russell throws mostly spirals and throws them with both touch and velocity. As with Bradshaw, Elway and other strong-arm quarterbacks, the ball explodes off Russell's big right hand.

"Somebody hired a Jugs machine and put a jersey on it," wide receiver Jerry Porter joked. "Man, he can throw. I can see why he's the first overall pick. One word -- wow."

Russell's best throw was a square-in pass -- about 15 yards downfield -- to Louisiana Tech rookie receiver Johnathan Holland. Six hands from three Raiders defenders reached for the perfectly thrown spiral. Their mission was hopeless. Only a cement wall would have stopped this completion. Holland caught the ball in stride with his hands.

Sapp joked after practice that No. 18 [Holland] probably needed a rubdown after that reception.

"If nothing else, we're going to learn to catch with our hands or somebody's going to the hospital for some trauma," Sapp said. "That kid's got a live arm, so let's have some fun with it."

Some of Bradshaw's passes were thrown so hard receivers used to joke about "the purple cross." Those were the bruise marks on receivers' chests for the poor souls who didn't catch with their hands. The tip of the ball would give a cross mark. The velocity of the throw would draw out the purple.

"But he throws a catchable ball," Holland said about Russell. "It's a tight spiral, and it's coming right at you. He's got great arm delivery."

Russell's height helps receivers. He stands tall in the pocket, and his delivery makes life easier for those catching. Even though he's 6-6, Russell releases the ball at about 6-8, giving receivers an extra half-second to spot the ball and pick up on its rotation.

Like so many of the great quarterbacks who came from Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana, Russell has a natural strength about him. Like so many of the great throwers, he understands the mechanics of throwing. Brett Favre, for example, has an unorthodox way of throwing. As he releases the ball, he hops backward. That hop has allowed him to avoid hits to the legs and make more consecutive starts (221 and counting) than any other quarterback in league history.

Russell has a different hop. He's athletic enough to set up quickly. His legs naturally fall into place directly below the width of his shoulders. By doing that, Russell is always in position to throw if a defender closes in. The positioning of his feet allows him to put the power of his 254-pound frame on his throws.

"You've got to have the core balance in your body, and it all comes together when you're practicing," Russell said. "When you drop, you try to have core balance each and every time. Sometimes, you find guys off balance, and they don't have good core balance in their drop. It's just something to work on each and every practice."

New Raiders coach Lane Kiffin doesn't have to work much with Russell's mechanics. But that doesn't mean the Raiders start with a finished product. About twice a practice this weekend, Russell pulled out of center a little early and fumbled snaps. A few times, he threw to areas where no receiver was present, a miscommunication that has to be worked out in time.

"On one, it was the receiver and myself doing the wrong thing," Russell said. "It happens when you're starting new things. As far as the new guy, being hip to all that, you just try to get adjusted to different things."

For the Raiders and their fans, patience will be needed with Russell. Great throwers need time to develop into great quarterbacks. Kiffin opened the competition at quarterback to Russell, Josh McCown and Andrew Walter. McCown might not have the strongest arm, but he's mobile and he has started. Walter has a decent arm, but he's slow afoot, a trait that usually results in sacks. Russell's the best man, but he needs time, and the West Coast offense usually takes a couple of years to learn.

Should Kiffin start Russell, don't expect great stats. Bradshaw completed only 38.1 percent of his passes as a rookie in 1970. Elway hit only 47.4 percent of his throws as a Broncos rookie. Vince Young was the rookie of the year in 2006, but he completed only 51.5 percent of his passes.

"He had a lot going through his mind, obviously," Kiffin said of Russell's practice debut. "We installed 82 plays. He did well, handled himself well. He's not winning the Super Bowl today. He's coming out here and trying to get a snap, take five steps back and throw it. So we're excited about his progress."

Russell was born premature, weighing only 4 pounds. At LSU, Russell couldn't use his high school uniform number, 2, so he took No. 4.

"I weighed only 4 pounds when I was born, so it kind of took some meaning to that," Russell said.

With the Raiders, Russell chose the No. 2 last worn by Aaron Brooks. Seeing a 6-6 version of No. 2 with a rocket arm won't have Raiders fans in the Black Hole asking for the birth certificate of this quarterback. The arm and the spirals add new meaning to this Raiders jersey.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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