UPDATED: I started writing this after the win in Denver. After the Baltimore game, I made a few updates and figured I'd still put it up. But now the news of JaMarcus going to Vegas after skipping the last team meeting has put a damper on the little bit of optimism I had left for the guy. I try to put something positive about him out there, something different, and look what happens. The Raiders have excused him and claim there is a team representative with him. So I'll still put this up and hope there's a good reason for him to be there.
It's finally over. The Raiders' seventh straight double-digit-loss season has ended, and it's time to get the off-season review underway. The coaching staff has a lot of ground to cover, and of course there are rumors that this current staff will not perform that review.
One major area to evaluate is if JaMarcus Russell made any progress during his benching. Amongst his myriad of flaws, it's hard to find something good about his performances, but I actually saw something he improved on – his footwork. It's one of his most readily discernible flaws.
If only his mental and work-ethic issues were as obvious on film. Though holding the ball as long as he does gives us a hint of how unfamiliar with the offense he still is. His lack of huddle command can also be seen. Hey, it's hard to relay a play to your teammates with authority when you're not completely sure what to do on it yourself.
Yes, he's been atrocious. Russell's passes missed wide-open receivers all year long when he would jump as he threw, was up on his toes, or completely on his back foot slinging the ball, depending too much on his strong arm.
But there have been streaks of improvement post benching. For one series in Denver, and for the most part in the finale against Baltimore, he put his back foot in the ground, shifted his weight forward, and the football started hitting receivers in the chest. It's one of the most basic techniques a young, project-type of QB must learn. You know, the kind of stuff a rookie training camp can clean up.
Ah, but JaMarcus was not afforded THAT luxury, in order to indulge in some others. (An assist to Lane Kiffin and his hand-picked negotiator is in order on that one too) Russell has definitely got to get his head and work ethic right during this bench time. One can only guess how far along the coach's feel the young multi-millionaire is with that. Statements by Coach Cable suggest there's a long way to go.
But the technical, very rudimentary, football issues that a project like him never had cleaned up because of the need to get him game-ready, had to be addressed during his benching. The head in his clock is still slow, all while the game-speed for him is not. In Denver he'd see something too late and then pump and hesitate, carelessly holding the ball too long, dangling it out low and away from his body.
He was lucky his fumble was recovered by one of his o-lineman on his first series, and he barely avoided two more fumbles on the final series. Early on against Baltimore, he seemed to make a concerted effort to get the ball out within three seconds, but the old problem crept up again, and he fumbled at the Raven's 25 yard line. Wearing two gloves like Kurt Warner won't fix that.
But in his final, fill-in appearances of the season, at the end of his drop, he put his back foot in ground, leaned forward, and delivered the ball with more accuracy than he's ever shown. His feet still get sloppy when he holds it too long. He doesn't reset well when after he scrambles. But when he drops back and fires, it's actually getting better.
Alex Smith mentioned the week the 49ers played the Titans, how in his first few years he was thinking about his footwork while dropping back. It's why a lot of young QB's struggle, and find themselves placed behind a journeyman for their first few seasons. The current trend of them playing in spread, shotgun-based offenses in college isn't making the transition for them any easier.
I know a lot of fans want to dump Russell and move on. I'm starting to feel like it's inevitable. The cap hit reduces over the next two seasons, but I'm not big on wasting first-overall picks and all that money Al Davis and co. paid. However, I like that the fear of that is in his head. I'm assuming he doesn't want his first big contract to be his last. He's still a very young man.
He's still a major talent, but always was—and still is—a major project, who should have sat behind a veteran QB. Carrying the hopes of the strange, wayward franchise he plays for is a hefty load for someone his age, and has proven too much. He's got a lot of work to do on and off the field. But the sliver of progress keeps some hope for more improvement alive.