Commentary

JaMarcus Russell: A work in regress

Experts weigh in on what's wrong with Raiders QB, who's off to an awful start

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Two weeks ago in the Meadowlands, on a sunny day achingly perfect for football, New York Giants quarterbacks Eli Manning and David Carr progressed methodically through their pregame passing route tree. They threw to their receivers, who ran all the various routes in the game plan, more than 50 very specific throws each.

JaMarcus Russell, their Oakland Raiders counterpart on the other side of the field, had a short soft toss with members of the team's staff.

JaMarcus Russell

Russell

Quarterback
Oakland Raiders

Profile

2009 Season Stats
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
149 68 735 2 6 51.0

"He's not a quarterback," said former Giants linebacker Carl Banks, a member of the WFAN broadcast crew who observed that curious dichotomy. "You could put any college kid in there right now and he'd do better."

The Raiders lost to the Giants, 44-7.

This isn't just any college kid -- the strapping Russell was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft (ahead of Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis, to name a few). Six games into Russell's third season, though, the numbers are ominous:

  • Russell has completed only 45.6 percent of his passes, and his rating is 51.0 -- better than only one other starting quarterback, Cleveland's Derek Anderson.

  • The 2-4 Raiders have scored only 62 points and are ranked 32nd in offense among the NFL's 32 teams.

  • Against the Giants, Russell often appeared confused, held the ball too long, and was sacked six times and lost three fumbles. He completed eight passes.

What's wrong with JaMarcus Russell?

How did he so swiftly become synonymous with Ryan Leaf, the quarterback from Washington State drafted second overall by the San Diego Chargers, who was never effective and was out of football after playing for four teams in five seasons?

It is fair to place some of the blame on the Raiders' organization, perhaps the league's most dysfunctional franchise. Since reaching the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2002 season, Oakland is an abysmal 26-76 (.255). There has been no coaching continuity in Russell's Raiders career; Lane Kiffin and Tom Cable have presided over a team with virtually no consistent direction from the top. Also, Russell's receivers have dropped a significant number of catchable passes (14, tied for eighth worst this season, according to Elias Sports Bureau).

Still, said Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts Inc., "Russell deserves an awful lot of the blame. He's as physically gifted as any quarterback in the league -- his arm might be No. 1 -- but he's clearly carrying too much weight, and his fundamentals are atrocious."

After Russell made significant progress in his sophomore season, the consensus is that he has regressed.

The view around the NFL is that Russell's work ethic, mechanics and ability to comprehend complex defenses -- all topics brought up again and again by a number of personnel experts -- are beyond suspect. Those last two categories, of course, are intimately related to the first. ESPN.com spoke with more than a dozen people in and around the NFL familiar with Russell's game, but most -- not wishing to offend Russell and the Raiders -- declined to be quoted.

Jimbo Fisher is Florida State's offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting. He also recruited Russell at LSU and coached him there for his entire college career; Fisher has known Russell since the player was a freshman in high school.

"All the things they say about him, I never saw those problems," Fisher said Wednesday from his office in Tallahassee. "It baffles me to hear that stuff. We film-studied; he carried three or four plays to the line of scrimmage; he read defenses and checked down.

[+] EnlargeJaMarcus Russell
Kyle Terada/US PresswireRussell's quarterback rating this season is 51.0. Only Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson (41.7) has a lower rating among starters.

"I'm a very demanding person, and would rip his tail when something happened. I'm not there, so I don't know what they're asking of him. But maybe they need to make him [study] more, work harder at it. I'd find time to do it. Make him give me reports, give it back to me."

"Unfortunately, this is the National Football League," said Rich Gannon, the last Raiders quarterback in a Super Bowl (XXXVII). "If you pay a guy $30 million, $40 million, it's a shame if you have to kick and prod him just to do his job."

It's difficult to know exactly what Russell and the Raiders think. The Raiders, although acknowledging a number of e-mails and telephone calls, declined to make Russell or any of their personnel people available for an interview with ESPN.com.

After he was booed by his home crowd in a Week 3 loss to Denver in which he threw for 61 yards, Russell, 24, admitted he was wounded, and a bit surprised.

"You wish they could be more supportive," Russell told local reporters. "We're already down in the dumps, and that doesn't make it any better. It was crazy for me. I had never really been in that situation before."

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer played quarterback for 14 seasons with four NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, whom he quarterbacked to the Super Bowl title in 2000. "My problem with JaMarcus Russell," Dilfer said, "is that he's not improving, not putting his best into the position to be successful. When you look at it closely, you can't find any excuses for this guy."

Supreme physical gifts

On the night before LSU's 2007 pro day, Russell dined with Raiders coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in Baton Rouge. Russell feasted on blackened redfish, grilled shrimp and broccoli.

The next day, March 14, he threw the lights out in one of the most dazzling passing performances that didn't involve a defense. There were 100 general managers, coaches and scouts gathered, at least one personnel man from each of the NFL's 32 teams. Russell, who hadn't thrown earlier at the NFL combine, spent 20 minutes throwing to gifted LSU players Justin Vincent, Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe -- the latter two also would go in the first round.

Russell checked in at 6-foot-5½, 256 pounds, impressively down 9 pounds from the combine. He ran a respectable 4.83-second 40-yard dash. And he threw lasers all over the field, including several majestic 80-yard parabolas that had the Raiders salivating. More than any other franchise, going back to the blueprint of their owner, Al Davis, the Raiders worship the physical gifts of size, power and speed. Russell was an almost perfect hybrid; Davis even invoked the name of John Elway.

"Oh, yes, definitely," Kiffin told reporters. "We were very impressed."

Some scouts, meanwhile, noted that Russell's short drops in the pocket sometimes led to wildly inaccurate throws and that he had difficulty anticipating when -- and where -- his receivers would come out of their breaks. He was especially poor at throwing across his body to the sideline, a pass critical to success in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeJaMarcus Russell
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireRussell was terrific in his last season at LSU, including a victory over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. He threw for 28 TDs in his final college season.
Russell always had registered crazy numbers. He passed for more than 10,000 yards at Williamson High School in Mobile, Ala., and tossed 28 touchdowns and completed a phenomenal 68 percent of his passes in his last season at LSU. Russell was 25-4 as a starter and, in a head-to-head meeting with Brady Quinn, LSU wrecked Notre Dame in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. Russell completed 21 of 34 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

"Everyone knew there was an awful lot of risk because he was so raw," said Scouts Inc.'s Williamson. "He was fundamentally poor but got away with it because he was surrounded by such a great supporting cast."

Dilfer believes quarterback is one of the most grossly misevaluated positions in all of sports because teams get enamored of what he calls the "loud component" of the formula.

"Arm strength and physical stature," Dilfer said. "Many teams have no idea how to evaluate the intuitive abilities -- how to manipulate the clock, changing arm angle to be accurate, how to feel the pass rush. There is so much more to playing quarterback than throwing the ball."

Most teams had Russell slotted somewhere in the third or fourth round, but the Raiders drafted him first overall. A holdout until mid-September yielded a six-year contract worth more than $60 million, more than half of it guaranteed, but the delay hindered Russell's development. Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper essentially split the starting job, and Russell played in only four games as a rookie.

In 2008, he played well for a second-year player, completing nearly 54 percent of his passes for 2,423 yards. More importantly, Russell's touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio was an impressive 13-to-8. In the last six games of the season, his passer rating was better than those of lauded rookies Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan.

Then 2009 descended, like a zeppelin in flames.

Through three games, Russell produced some vile numbers of historic proportion. His passer rating was 39.8, and his completion percentage, at 41.3, wasn't much better. In the only game the Raiders won, at woeful Kansas City, Russell completed only seven passes.

The game never slows down

Oakland was 1-4 and had scored all of 49 points when Jarrett Bell of USA Today crossed paths with the Raiders' owner in Boston.

Davis ran through a list of slow-starting careers at quarterback: Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Elway, Ken Stabler. Later, Davis added Steve Young, Joe Montana and Dan Fouts.

"JaMarcus, he's got to do better," Davis told Bell. "He knows it. But we've got to fight through it with him."

Certainly, patience is a virtue when it comes to developing quarterbacks, as the long list above suggests.

Still, those ultimately successful players were extremely proactive in their NFL education. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning made themselves into great quarterbacks through exhaustive film study and practice. After he was waived by the Raiders at his own request in early September, Jeff Garcia suggested that Russell wasn't as diligent.

"I have no problem going into a situation and helping a young guy out," said Garcia, who spent five months with the Raiders, in a Fox Sports Radio interview. "I just feel like it's an unfortunate situation when the entire work ethic and the entire goal of a team is really put upon one guy's shoulder who really isn't maybe ready for that situation or ready to take on that sort of responsibility.

"It was to a point where I felt like guys who walked through the doors were just there to collect a check and not really interested in putting everything that they had within themselves onto the football field."

Russell, according to scouts, usually puts in a typical 9-5 business day at the Raiders' facility. Sometimes, they say, he leaves before 4 p.m. Although Russell typically plays at about 270 pounds, Raiders officials have told their personnel peers that Russell has been as high as 300.

"Talking to those close to the organization," said one scout, who has friends within the Raiders and requested anonymity, "they are alarmed at the way he prepares. The game never slows down for this guy. There are real concerns about whether he'll ever be a real player."

Poor discipline and poor preparation habits invariably lead to poor mechanics. In the NFL, where the openings in coverage are so much narrower than in college, precise mechanics are critical.

"Way too often," Williamson said, "he trusts his arm alone. Even when he has a clean pocket, he throws off his back foot -- that's inexcusable. That's why he'll just flat-out miss open people." Russell's "stroke," according to Dilfer, isn't right.

"It's the hips moving, the arm and shoulder placement," Dilfer said. "The No. 1 thing is efficiency and suddenness, not quickness, when the brain tells the body to move. He has neither. It's inefficient and slow and methodical. There is very little chance for success.

"His football intelligence -- the ability to process information, trust your instincts and make lightning-quick decisions -- is lacking."

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
AP Photo/Paul SakumaDespite the barrage of criticism, Raiders owner Al Davis is standing by his 2007 No. 1 draft pick.

"Obviously, he's off to a slow start," said Jim Plunkett, who quarterbacked the Raiders to victory in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. "He should be playing better than he's played -- he knows that.

"This isn't a great situation for a quarterback to be successful, for many reasons."

Gannon, now a CBS analyst -- and a man who once was banned from the Raiders' facility for critical comments -- ran down that list: (1) Russell has had at least three different play-callers in fewer than three seasons, (2) inexperience at wide receiver, (3) an unsettled offensive line that lost tackle Robert Gallery and (4) a running game slowed by an injury to Darren McFadden.

"But that being said," Gannon added, "enough with the free pass. He has not played well. Looking at the film … the weight … You'd like him lighter. That speaks volumes about a guy's preparedness.

"If you don't have a solid performer at that position, you're going to struggle. If that guy isn't the smartest, hardworking guy in the building, well, I would be concerned if I was the coach or a teammate."

Before the Philadelphia Eagles visited the Raiders on Sunday, Russell acknowledged criticism of himself and his team.

"A lot of people are fed up over the course of a year," Russell told local reporters, "but the only thing we can do this week is make some plays and, hopefully, it will go the other way."

And that's exactly what happened. Russell had a solid day, completing 17 of 28 passes for 224 yards, including an 86-yard catch-and-run to his favorite target, tight end Zach Miller. It was the longest touchdown pass play in 25 years for the Raiders, and it was the difference in a surprising 13-9 victory over the Eagles.

Earlier in the season, Russell complained about his receivers' dropping the ball. After rookie Louis Murphy let a ball slide through his hands for a Philadelphia interception, Russell approached Murphy -- who has five drops overall -- on the field and patted his head.

Russell is remaining calm. Fisher said he is very close to Russell and speaks with him regularly. They talked last week when he was preparing for Philadelphia.

"He told me, 'Hey we're just going to keep working, trying to getting better,'" Fisher said. "He is one of the most confident kids I've ever been around."

Pressed to explain the sudden decline in performance this season, Fisher had a theory.

"Listen," he said, "he's going through a rough time. His Uncle Ray, his mom's brother, passed away this summer. That was his mentor. They were extremely close; he came out to live with him early on. When you recruited JaMarcus, you went through Ray. I think maybe it's affected him."

Admittedly, it is early in the curve.

Russell has started only 25 NFL games, and his record is 8-17. Consider the Class of 2006 quarterbacks by comparison: Jay Cutler, a so-called franchise quarterback, was traded by Denver to Chicago and is 20-22 as a starter. Matt Leinart is merely 7-10 in three-plus seasons and is stuck behind veteran Kurt Warner in Arizona. Vince Young is 18-11, but now he is playing behind Kerry Collins on an 0-6 Tennessee team. All three of those first-round picks are two years older than Russell.

"I'm not saying JaMarcus can never be that guy," Garcia said. "It's just right now he's still young; he has a lot of growth that needs to take place within himself, from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint.

"When you put him on the field in a one-on-one workout session, he'll make every throw for you, but when it comes down to making things happen in the heat of battle and rallying the troops around you and making a case for the team, that's where maybe things aren't where they need to be."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.