Friday, March 19, 2010
JaMarcus Russell : Too Much Too Soon?
One Oakland Raider said ,"That's a horror show." Another starter said "don't hold your breath." These were a few quotes bandied about in the Raiders offices when quarterback JaMarcus Russell failed to show up for the first day of voluntary work-outs.
He showed up the second day 11 pounds over his listed playing weight of 260, but was reportedly still in good shape. It is almost hard to believe the 24 year old Russell is already entering his fourth year of a career. Critics are trying to label him a bust after being the first overall pick in the 2007 draft.
While his rookie year was mostly riding the bench, starting once in four appearances, he was handed the starting job his sophomore year and the strong armed youngster threw 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions.Though it was a positive year for a 23 year old kid, fans wanted more. Unfortunately this was not the case his third year, as he tossed 13 interceptions against 3 touchdowns in a year he lost his starting job to journeyman Bruce Gradkowski.
Now there is a growing sentiment in Raiders Nation that Russell is a failure and Gradkowski should stay atop the depth chart. Yet there is other fears that Russell was perhaps thrown into the fray before he was mentally ready, retarding his growth as a NFL quarterback.
There was a time in the NFL it almost seemed mandatory a quarterback sat a few years before playing. Raiders fans know this from maybe the franchises greatest quarterback, Ken "Snake" Stabler, who rode the pine four years before getting his shot. Stabler responded with the first of his four Pro Bowl years in that 1973 season, and led the Raiders to a Super Bowl win by 1976.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is full of quarterbacks who had to ride the bench for several years, learning the game before given their chance to display their progress. Len Dawson floated from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Cleveland Browns to the Dallas Texans/ Kansas City Chiefs before starting full time in his sixth season. Sonny Jurgensen rode the bench for the Philadelphia Eagles before earning the starting job in his fifth year.
The list goes on. In 1973, Roger Staubach entered his fifth year named the full time starter for the first time. He did start ten games in 1971, alternating plays with Craig Morton over half of the season, and led them to a Super Bowl title.Men like Tom Brady and Joe Montana spent most of their first two seasons as reserves.
Perhaps Russell will follow the path of Pittsburgh Steeler legend Terry Bradshaw? Both are noted for having exceptionally strong throwing arms. Bradshaw's first three years saw him toss 58 interceptions and 31 touchdowns. He lost his starting job just past the halfway point of the season into his fourth year and again in his fifth year before claiming it for good. His replacements did not play particularly well either year, but the Steelers did win the Super Bowl in 1974. Bradshaw retired with four Super Bowl titles in his reign.
Sometimes a change of scenery helps. Hall of Famer Bobby Layne was the Chicago Bears first round draft pick in 1948, the third overall pick. He was buried behind Hall of Famer Sid Luckman and Pro Bowler Johnny Lujack on the depth chart, so he was traded to the New York Bulldogs after the season. After starting all year in the Bulldog's 1-11 season, he was traded to the Detroit Lions and had an excellent career. Luckman himself spent his first two season as a part-time starter at quarterback and halfback.
Other quarterbacks like Hall of Famer Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, and Joe Theismann went to the Canadian Football League to learn how to play quarterback before joining the NFL. Theismann even played special teams as a gunner before securing the starting job full time in his fifth NFL season. Flutie left the NFL after his fourth season in 1989, and did not return from the CFL until 1998 to enjoy his lone Pro Bowl year for the Buffalo Bills.
Not every quarterback needs a few years of schooling. Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Joe Namath, John Elway, Fran Tarkenton, and Johnny Unitas jumped right in and took over, though Unitas spent a year out of football after being cut in his rookie year.
Peyton Manning is one day headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame .He is another example of a guy starting day one, as are other modern day quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. Other quarterbacks like Tavaris Jackson, Alex Smith, and Vince Young were sat back down to learn more.
Some say Russell is a victim of having a porous offensive line in front of him. Exposing him to frequent hits to where he may now flinch at the nearest hint of defensive pressure on him. He has been sacked 64 times in the last 27 games he has played.
Fans may recall three other quarterbacks who took a pounding. Jim Plunkett was the first player chosen in the 1971 draft with the Boston Patriots. He was dropped 146 times in 61 games over five years, even though he lost his starting job in his fifth year. Plunkett would persevere, however, becoming a two time Super Bowl winning quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
The greatest Manning to ever play in the NFL, Archie, was drafted one pick behind Plunkett by the New Orleans Saints in 1971. He joined a team struggling so much, they were called the "Aint's" by league followers. Archie was sacked an incredible 340 times in 134 games with New Orleans. His first two years in the NFL saw him lead the league in being sacked, despite being extremely mobile. He led the league again in the category in his fifth year.
Archie Manning, like Plunkett, also persevered. Despite playing on some of the worst teams in modern NFL history that saw him endure savage beatings each Sunday. Things got so bad, sport writers were writing tongue in cheek articles asking defenses to take it easy on the affable quarterback. This included beat writers who covered teams the Saints were opposing.
He got to see the team eventually improve somewhat by his seventh season in 1978. He made the Pro Bowl and was named the NFC Player Of The Year. His 1979 season saw the Saints have their first non-losing season in franchise history, going 8-8. Archie's teams won 35 of the 139 games he started, the worst winning percentage in NFL history amongst quarterbacks with at least 100 starts.
Despite all of this, Manning has his number hanging in the Saints Superdome by a banner, joined only by recent Canton inductee Ricky Jackson, is a member of the Saints 40th Anniversary Team, was inducted into the teams Hall of Fame in 1988, and is the Chairman of Saints Hall of Famers.
Another case to remember is that of David Carr, the first pick in the 2002 draft by the Houston Texans. He got creamed a league leading 76 times his rookie year, and 249 times in 76 games. His confidence was so shaken, he looked like a deer staring into headlights every time the ball was snapped, though he did lead the league in completion percentage during his last year as a Texan in 2006. He is now a free agent after playing with two teams the past three years, so it remains to be seen if he will join Plunkett and Manning in toughening out a respectable career.
The journey Russell will eventually take will probably not be decided in 2010, but it could have significant impact on his future as a Raider. Oakland could help him out by drafting a few blockers, and hope they are ready to contribute immediately. The running back duo of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush is expected to be more effective than last season as well. The current starters on the offensive line last year thoroughly showed an upgrade is needed. Oakland cannot afford to score just 12.3 points per game like last year, second worst in the NFL, because their defense has yet to show they can stop anyone consistently.
Russell was drafted to lead the team, not be called an inconsistent horror show. There are rumblings that he is immature and doesn't work as hard as he should. He now enters his second year with quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett and Passing Game Coordinator Ted Tollner. Both men have been coaching since the 1960's and have long resumes filled with successes. Hue Jackson enters his first year as Offensive Coordinator, after just leaving the Baltimore Ravens. He was the quarterbacks coach there, overseeing the development of Joe Flacco.
Head coach Tom Cable's area of expertise is coaching the offensive line. He learned under such offensive minds like Dennis Erickson and Kevin Gilbertson. It is up to him and Offensive Line coach John Michalczik to get improved quality of play from this unit in the trenches. The coaches Russell has are proven, but more repetitive hits could take Russell on a longer than expected journey in learning his position.
Perhaps Cable could get owner Al Davis call in Plunkett, Stabler, and even Hall of Famer George Blanda to talk with Russell about diligence, hard work, and patience. Blanda did not earn the permanent starting job at quarterback until his fifth year, starting out his career at linebacker. He lost the job after that year and would not again be a full time starter until his tenth season. The Raiders Family is long known for their close knit ties. Having three on the silver and blacks legends in his ear with advice can be a lesson from a school like no other, and one sorely needed by a youngster who appears to now be wandering aimlessly along the NFL highway in need of direction.