It was April 28th, 2007. Commissioner Roger Goodell had put the Raiders on the clock and the media was scanning the Green Room. We all saw the faces of Calvin "The Best Player In The Draft" Johnson and Brady "What Could Go Wrong For Me Today?" Quinn.
None of the draft prospects had received a phone call at this point.
In the ensuing moments, my mind had wavered between a trade down or a massive reach. I, like most of the Raider faithful, was growing even more impatient. We had known that this moment was coming for months. Draft analysts had been working tirelessly to bring us every up-to-the-minute update.
Then it happened.
Goodell stepped back onto the stage and uttered the words that will never escape my mind. "Alright Raider fans. With the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders select..."
Time stood still. We were either about to begin our climb out of the cellar of the AFC West or condemn ourselves to several more years of irrelevance.
"QB, JaMarcus Russell, LSU."
I thrust my arms up in victory. The man that was rumored to have captured the attention of Al Davis with his rocket arm had just become the Oakland Raiders franchise QB. Not a soul was surprised. We might as well have mailed the pick in months before. It was simply destiny.
Yes, it was JaMarcus Russell. JaMarcus Russell, who took his LSU Tigers to the Sugar Bowl and beat Brady Quinn. JaMarcus Russell, who had thrown 80 yards standing, 60 yards on his knees and 40 yards on his back.
JaMarcus Russell, who Al Davis himself had compared to the legendary John Elway (before going on with a story about the league blocking the Raiders from trading for Elway because of the Los Angeles escapade).
Raider Nation waited months and months after that, watching each and every other team sign their first round draft picks as JaMarcus continued his record-setting holdout. We waited all through training camp, debating about who was better suited to keep the seat warm for JR (McCown vs. Culpepper).
Finally, a little after Week 1, he signed a record-breaking deal. Of course he would not immediately be thrown into the fire! He had missed training camp. But he was on hand to travel with the team to Denver for Week 2. Little did Russell know, he was watching the team that he would later make his professional debut against.
In Week 13, the Raiders hosted the Broncos in Oakland. This would be the day JaMarcus finally took the field. In the second quarter, with the score tied 7-7, the Coliseum got as loud as I'd ever heard it. There was some shuffling around on the Raider sideline. Coach Jon DeFilippo grabbed Russell and gave him some last words of advice before he took the field.
In his very first play, Russell dropped back and play-actioned to Fargas. He confidently pulled the ball away, reverse-rolled, and zoomed a pass towards the sideline. Jerry Porter had made the grab! Oakland exploded with cheers.
In Week 17, Russell made his very first start against the San Diego Chargers. The first time Oakland's offense took the field, Russell shoveled a potential dump off to Justin Fargas, only to be intercepted by San Diego D-Lineman Igor Olshansky.
The rest of the game would be much smoother sailing.
Russell would finish the game completing 23 out of 31 passes for 224 yards and a lone touchdown (a breath-taking rocket to Jerry Porter in the middle of the end zone). The result was unconditional support. Head coach named JaMarcus the teams' starting QB for the 2008 season immediately following the game.
In 2008, Russell finally reported for his first NFL training camp. There was little to no competition at the QB position. The Raiders were swirling with excitement over their splurge in free agency (purchases included WR Javon Walker, SS Gibril Wilson, and a trade for CB DeAngelo Hall).
Week 1 starred a familiar foe for Russell. The Raiders would host the Broncos. The game was a blowout. But not the kind Oakland would have liked. Russell finished the game 17/26, 180 yards, with 2 touchdowns.
The following week was easier for Oakland, but much harsher for their franchise QB. The Raiders defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on the road but Russell had a forgettable performance. He didn't throw any interceptions, although he never found the end zone.
The coming weeks would change the Raiders MO dramatically.
Head coach Lane Kiffin was fired after losing close battles in Buffalo and against San Diego. The man who had drafted JaMarcus No. 1 overall had taken back control of his team.
Former O-Line coach Tom Cable was named head coach on an interim basis. Under Cable, Russell and the Raiders would struggle to regain their identity for most of the season. Russell had games where he flashed his tons of potential. He also played in games where JaMarcus was a non-factor.
Raider Nation was wondering who would be the coach of their team in 2009. Cable had won games against the Jets and the Broncos, but it certainly wouldn't be enough to get him a permanent job.
The last home game would be against the Houston Texans, a team that had won their last 4 games. The Raiders had never defeated the Texans up until this point.
During the game, Russell finally broke out of his slump. He completed 18 out of 25 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders were never seriously challenged. But it still wouldn't be enough to secure Tom Cable's job.
The next game, however, would be.
The Raiders traveled to Tampa Bay for the final week of the 2008 season. They would be facing a Buccaneers team that only needed one win to secure their spot in the playoffs.
Tampa's head coach at the time? Jon Gruden, whom the Raiders had "traded" away shortly before their Superbowl run. The same Jon Gruden that had defeated the Raiders in that very Superbowl. The Buccaneers defensive coordinator? Monte Kiffin, the father of former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.
The stars had alligned for Tampa to crush Oakland en route to a postseason appearance. But nobody told the Raiders.
The first quarter was scoreless. Nerves were running high. The game was slow until the second quarter, when Raiders' RB Michael Bush busted into the end zone. The Bucs retaliated with a Cadillac Williams' touchdown run of their own.
In the second quarter, right before the half, Russell would drive the Raiders down the field and find Chaz Schilens in the back of the end zone. Oakland had taken the lead 14-7.
In the second half, Tampa would score 17 unanswered points to take a 24-14 lead. Things looked grim. The Raiders of the past would have conceded at this point.
But not these Raiders. JaMarcus would again drive the Raiders down the field before finding Johnnie Lee Higgins for the score. 24-21 Tampa.
The defense would hold on the next possession. Not much time was left. Michael Bush had a big game up to this point, but nobody could have predicted what happened next. Bush ripped a 66 yard touchdown run that would finally put the Raiders back on top.
Gruden and the elder Kiffin were defeated. The Raiders had finally won back-to-back games. JaMarcus finished with a respectable 14/21, 148 yard, 2 TD, 1 INT performance.
After the game, Tampa would fire Jon Gruden and Oakland would permanently hire Tom Cable. The Raiders would play coy about the repercussions, but it didn't take a genius to understand what the game had meant to the struggling Raiders. It gave optimism to a whole nation.
2009 will be Russell's third year in the NFL, although it will be his second as a starter. The Raiders grabbed Tampa's veteran QB, Jeff Garcia, in free agency to mentor and potentially push JaMarcus. Competition breeds success, after all.
While it remains to be seen how the Raiders will compete in their 2009 campaign, one thing is clear. It will be JaMarcus Russell's make-or-break year with Garcia recently promising to give it his all to take Russell's starting position.
Russell hasn't yet commented on this competition (to my knowledge), but one would like to imagine that the Garcia signing would be everything it was meant to be for Russell.
We'll see. For now, all Raider Nation can do is look back at their strong 2007 finish and hope that JaMarcus Russell will finally emerge as the QB he was drafted to become.
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