Raiders need Russell to return them to glory
OAKLAND – The days of babying JaMarcus Russell on his journey from No. 1 overall pick to NFL franchise quarterback have ended for the Oakland Raiders.
Entering his third year in the NFL, Russell is being counted on to show off that big arm that made him the top pick two years ago, and help carry the Raiders back to being a winning team after a distressing six-year run of losing.
Despite giving Russell $31 million in guaranteed money when he signed, the Raiders really haven’t demanded much from him yet. A lengthy holdout essentially wasted his rookie year, and Oakland spent last year trying to make sure Russell didn’t lose games instead of asking him to win them.
The Raiders relied so heavily on their running game that at one point owner Al Davis thought former coach Lane Kiffin had turned into Woody Hayes and his “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense.
That started to change late last season, when interim coach Tom Cable began challenging Russell to be the hardest worker on the team. Cable stepped up that criticism after getting the full-time job in the offseason, and the Raiders signed former Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia to mentor and push Russell.
But any doubt that this was Russell’s team was erased when the Raiders released Garcia just over a week before the start of the season. Russell knows the success of the team hinges on his performance and if he doesn’t succeed this year those whispers about whether he’s a bust will only grow louder.
“It kind of falls back on the head coach and the quarterback,” Russell said. “If you get a win, ‘Hey, the quarterback did this, the head coach did that.’ If you get a loss, ‘Hey, coach you (stink), quarterback you (stink).’ So it kind of falls back on us, you know what I mean? So I take that and run with it.”
Of the 15 quarterbacks taken in the top 10 in the draft before Russell, eight had led a team to the playoffs by the end of their third year. The seven who hadn’t still are waiting to make their first playoff starts.
That’s why the pressure is on Russell to show major progress this season. The Raiders need a legitimate passing game to pair with their strong running attack led by Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush if they have any chance to succeed.
“t know if you’re ever pleased that it’s where it needs to be, but we’re certainly excited where it’s going,” Cable said. “That’s the one thing I’ve taken out of it is that we’ve seen some consistency now, and that’s the most important thing. I mean, shoot, you want them all to be perfect, but you know, for right now, I’m excited about the consistency and his progress.”
Russell began making that progress late last season after playing one of his worst games in a 24-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, whose rookie quarterback Matt Ryan had sped by Russell in half a season.
Russell missed the next week with an injury before playing his best football down the stretch. He had an 88.5 passer rating over his final seven starts, winning three of them and throwing seven touchdowns against four interceptions.
“He’s come a long way since being a rookie and missing all that time,” tight end Zach Miller said. “By leaps and bounds, he’s a better player than he was two years ago and just in the season last year. I feel real comfortable with JaMarcus as our quarterback.”
The Raiders have tried to give Russell some playmakers on offense by drafting McFadden in the first round in 2008 and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey this year.
McFadden showed signs of his explosiveness in a rookie season plagued by toe injuries. McFadden appears poised for a breakout campaign this season.
There are more questions about Heyward-Bey, a controversial pick when Oakland selected him over more accomplished receivers Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. Heyward-Bey struggled holding onto the ball in training camp, but the Raiders believe his breakaway speed will open up the passing game for Russell.
“We’re excitably young and unproven,” passing game coordinator Ted Tollner said. “So whether we can do it or not, that’s going to all come out in the wash. But I know this: For us to be a winning football team, we’ve got to find a way to complement the run game with a more effective and productive pass game. We have to.”
There are also questions on the defensive side of the ball, where a change in coordinators to John Marshall has not appeared to fix the six-year problem of a leaky run defense. So to further address that issue, the Raiders traded for five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour on Sunday.
But Seymour balked at joining the team, with reports saying he was unhappy about moving from one of the league’s most successful franchises in New England to one of its worst in Oakland.
The Raiders are an NFL-worst 24-72 the past six years, losing at least 11 games in a record six straight seasons. Accompanying the losses has been plenty of turmoil, which reached a peak last season with the feud between Kiffin and Davis that ended with the coach’s firing after four games.
Cable brought a needed steadiness to the franchise, but that was interrupted by reports he assaulted assistant Randy Hanson during training camp in a case being investigated by the police and the NFL.
The quickest way to turn the conversation positive will be for Cable and Russell to make the Raiders winners again.
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