In Defense of the Indefensible: JaMarcus Russell's Future in Oakland

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst IMarch 21, 2010

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 03:  JaMarcus Russell #2 of the Oakland Raiders walks off the field against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on January 3, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The quarterback controversy for the Oakland Raiders remains a hot topic amongst every Raider fan that bleeds silver and black.

JaMarcus Russell has all the tools, and yet Bruce Gradkowski has all the desire.

Going into the 2009 season, many Raiders fans and even the sports media believed that the Raiders had a chance to be competitive or at least give NFL and Raider fans alike something fun to watch.

Instead, we were subjected to more of the same anemic offense under JaMarcus Russell, until coach Tom Cable benched Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski.

In only a few starts, Gradkowski gave the sports world a reason to believe that the Raiders were close to contention and that coach Cable wasn't far fetched in claiming that the Raiders would be back to the postseason. 

The Raiders were no longer systemically dysfunctional, as has been the narrative since 2003.  And dare I say it that Al Davis could ultimately have the last laugh.

Elephants on Parade

Yet, the quarterback controversy in Oakland still lingers.  Russell is the elephant in the room that must be addressed.  All intentional puns aside, reality may have finally clicked in Russell's brain.

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After taking much heat for being MIA at the first day of voluntary camp, Russell has showed-up in improved physical condition after being much maligned for weight problems. 

Going into the 2009 season, Russell was "ordained" as the Raiders' savior without much depth behind him at quarterback.

Until of course, the Raiders signed veteran Jeff Garcia, which started the press a-buzzin' that Garcia could eventually be the starter.  Press like that made me wonder if the press was merely sowing seeds of drama in Oakland, as the sports media seems to love doing in general, not just against the Raiders.

Garcia would be released before the season.  At that point, the heat was on Russell to step up and lead the Raiders from the abyss.  Of course, that never materialized and Gradkowski would step in to give Raider faithful something to believe in.

Defeatism from Fans

Russell has clearly disappointed expectations.  I think any honest critic would admit that.

At the same time, I have long questioned the impatience of Raider fans.  In my opinion, fan impatience is the most destructive force to the direction of any sports club, because it can lead to rash decisions by the club in order to appease the fans so that the fans keep buying tickets and merchandise.

Moreover, once fans give up a player, that player will either give up on himself or just stop caring, especially if he gets a big paycheck regardless. 

As much heat as pro-athletes take these days, I remain convinced that any pro-athlete still feeds off the adrenaline of hearing the crowd roar.  Inversely, the pro-athlete will succumb to defeatism from the crowd's derision, no matter how tough that athlete pretends to be.

It has also been my observation that fans seem to be more forgiving of white athletes and more derisive towards black athletes.  I don't call that "racism," but rather "racial bias," which simply means that you don't necessarily hate other races, you just prefer your race, even if that preference is detrimental to others.

One Raider blogger even commented that he'd rather lose with Gradkowski than win with Russell (ahem ).  If that is not racial bias, how would one defend such a statement?

I think that the defeatism expressed amongst many Raider fans has been unwarranted.  In part because the same fans are more willing to excuse the colossal failure that was Lane "The Pain" Kiffin, because the same fans would rather follow the false narrative that Davis is the root of all problems in Oakland and that the Raiders will change only when Davis dies.

Even I fell prey to that mentality last season, in which I decided to express my ire in articles that called for boycotts of the Raiders if Davis didn't change course.  That feeling of course has passed, and though blogging can be a snap-shot of the blogger's mood, I think blogging just increases the difficulty of discerning the "big picture" that defines the blogger.

Raider fans though have wanted to pin the problem on Russell, because they want to believe the problem was just Russell. 

If the problem is only Russell, then that would suggest the Raiders would be fine simply by replacing Russell.  In that regard, it was comforting to Raider fans to believe that Russell was an "isolated variable" and once changed, Raider fortunes would follow in accordance.

The limited success of Gradkowski would even reinforce the validity of that perception.  Nevertheless, I do believe that there is more to the big picture than meets the eye.

Russell entered the league at a very young age for a quarterback in 2007.  Russell was only 21 when he left LSU for the NFL.  Even now, Russell is going on 25, which in fact, is the average age for most rookie quarterbacks.

The Invisible Hands of Alex Smith

Oh how I wish his name was actually Adam.  Then that pun would make more sense.

I draw a comparison between Russell and another top pick just across the Bay Bridge, Alex Smith with the San Francisco 49ers.

Smith left the University of Utah in 2005 at the age of 20.  As a rookie, Smith was expected to take the reigns of a proud and decorated club that had fallen on hard times.  Instead, Smith struggled mightily and threw only one touchdown pass as a rookie.

Smith of course, came from the offense of Urban Meyer at Utah, which was not NFL ready.  Moreover, Smith played under defensive-minded coach Mike Nolan for a team with a long history of great quarterbacks and thus had much pressure from the fans to perform.

Everything about Smith's game would be dissected, including the size of his hands.  Fans have the tendency to believe that certain things will inherently prevent an athlete from success on the pro-level. 

Obviously, you'll never see a 5'3" quarterback, but I have long believed that certain measurables like height and weight are overrated.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees in fact is 6'0", as opposed to the typical pro-quarterback height of about 6'4".  As long as neither deviates too far from the NFL mean at the position though, then it's just a matter of work-ethic and desire.

Today, Smith appears to be back on track in San Francisco, after replacing Shaun Hill behind center in 2009.  It has also helped that former bust and now Pro Bowler Vernon Davis has lived up to his billing at tight end, while receiver Michael Crabtree could be a fantasy stud in 2010.

Alienation in Raider Nation

On the flip side, JaMarcus Russell entered the NFL at 21 as the top pick for a proud and decorated club that had fallen on hard times. 

At the same time, Russell also had a coach, Kiffin, that had no intent to work with him.  And the sports media seemed to think that was just peachy.

Many called for Davis to listen to his coach, when clearly, the college assistant was hired because no one else would sign a contract with Al Davis, including Sean Payton and Ken Whisenhunt.

On one hand, it is Davis' club.  Davis has the right to determine the course of the Raiders in any way he chooses.  Nevertheless, when that course doesn't work, most people would try something differently.  This however is Al Davis we're talking about, a man who didn't get into the Hall of Fame by following the leader.

As it is said, if it ain't broke don't fix it.  Inversely, if it is broke, then try to fix it.

Yet, Raider fans have targeted Russell as the punching bag, because his apathy and bad habits have made him an easy target.  Nevertheless, I think it is a valid question to ask whether his aloof ways have been the by-product of the fact that Kiffin intentionally alienated Russell.

Put yourself in his gigantic shoes.  If your boss made it clear that he had no purpose for you, and so no matter how hard you tried to earn your place, the boss didn't care: wouldn't you just tune out?

In that process, Russell developed bad habits.  Once Kiffin was gone, Russell still had the bad habits, but arrogantly acted as if it wouldn't matter and thus tried to walk his way back to legitimacy when he needed to sprint in order to catch-up.

Then came Gradkowski.  Until the success of Gradkowski, the Raiders seemed to have no depth at quarterback but "Bruce All Mighty" would change that perception.

Just Win, Baby

Many Raider fans are convinced that Russell is just a bust and that the Raiders should cut their losses.  I though, wonder a few things.

Firstly, was the success of Gradkowski a fluke?  The fact is that, the Raiders weren't high on any opponent's watch list and may have been able to ambush the Bengals and Steelers in 2009.

Secondly, could a season with Gradkowski at starter save the career of Russell?  With Gradkowski at starter, the heat will be on him.  Subsequently, Russell will have a season without pressure to study and continue getting in better shape.

That could result in several scenarios. 

If Gradkowski were to succeed, then the Raiders could trade him.  Alternatively, if Gradkowski succeeds and Russell shows signs of dedication, the Raiders could trade Russell.  Or, the Raiders would have the "great player" that Davis envisioned when he selected Russell.

Most importantly though, the Raiders need to start winning. 

If that means a season with Gradkowski, then fine.  Winning becomes contagious.  Once the team starts winning, the players want to keep winning.  When a team loses, the players get frustrated or jaded and just can't break free from that loop.

The bottom line however is that Russell can still turnaround his career and that the worst thing we Raider fans can do is sabotage his efforts with destructive criticism.

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