Oct. 30, 2014
What Ruined JaMarcus Russell?
Nearly five years after playing his final NFL snap, we look back at one of the biggest busts in recent memory
JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick in 2007, played three seasons for Oakland before being cut in May 2010 (Cary Edmenton/USA Today)
Written by Jake Elman
Once upon a time, a franchise plagued by losing made the decision to select a former SEC star quarterback in the first round, hoping that this young man would be able to lead them back to greatness. It was a wise decision, as the quarterback had excelled in college and had all the intangibles to succeed in the NFL. But, two months into the season, they had yet to step behind center as the starting signal caller for their team.
Oh, ya'll thought I was talking about Johnny Manziel, huh?
Let's flash back to 2007, shall we? Jamarcus Russell was a hot quarterback prospect from LSU, and in a draft that featured future Pro Bowlers Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Darrelle Revis, the Oakland Raiders took a chance on Russell with their first pick. It was expected that Russell would usher in a new era to Oakland, one of winning and Lombardi Trophies.
Sure, there was winning, but not too much of it. Jamarcus Russell's final stats in the NFL? 31 games, 25 of them starts; Russell threw for 4,083 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. Russell only completed 52.1 percent of his passes, and after arriving to camp in 2010 overweight, the Radiers cut him on the spot. Yikes.
So, what could have happened? What was it that made Russell turn out to be such a failure in the NFL? This was such a surefire, can't miss, prospect, so what could've gone wrong.
First off, how about we look at Russell the player. Now, let's be honest for a second: it was a general consensus that the Oakland Raiders were going to go with Russell first overall in the 2007 NFL Draft rather than Calvin Johnson or Adrian Peterson. Veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia had left the Bay Area for Tampa Bay, and this wasn't really a quarterback driven draft; you have to remember, 2005-2009 weren't really spectacular quarterback classes, instead being driven by running backs, wide receivers, and defensive linemen. The one exception, I guess, was 2008, but even then there were only two starter quality quarterbacks (Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco), and they were off the board by pick number 19.
Walter Football mocked Russell first overall to Oakland in April 2007, saying, "There are two things Al Davis looks for every April: athleticism and arm strength (for quarterbacks). JaMarcus Russell has both attributes, and reminds me of Daunte Culpepper circa 2004. Moreover, Russell's ability to elude defenders will come in handy once opposing pass rushers easily squeak through Oakland's pitiful offensive line."
To be fair, that was a pretty solid analysis at the time. Russell's arm strength was fantastic, to the point where EA Sports' Madden NFL series would constantly rate him in the high 90s when it came to that category. He was big, bigger than linemen on the other team, but maybe being a big quarterback could work. It'd be harder to take the quarterback down, right?
In theory, that was smart reasoning. I'm the type of person who would probably suggest that same thing, just going off logic. But looking back seven years later, I think people just wanted to make a quarterback stand out in a class that was, predominately, running back and defensive line based; the same happened in 2013, to an extent, where a lot of people were hyping up Geno Smith and Ryan Nassib because there was no true franchise quarterback in that draft (like an Andrew Luck or an Aaron Rodgers), and we see how this turned out.
That's not to say JaMarcus Russell was at all a bad quarterback coming out of college, but maybe we as a whole overrated him because there was no major star, definite franchise quarterback in the draft. Guys were going off what they saw a year before, and what they saw at Russell's Pro Day, something NFL Network analsyst Mike Mayock would admit years later:
“The best Pro Day I ever saw as a quarterback was JaMarcus Russell," Mayock Dan Patrick in March 2010. I’ve never seen a quarterback throw the football like that in my life, but I still couldn’t take him in the first round — the guy doesn’t care about football. He doesn’t have the passion for the game, doesn’t have the work ethic, I don’t want him. But by the way, it was a pretty impressive Pro Day.”
You never want to play the what if game, but looking back, Oakland made such a big mistake not taking Calvin Johnson first overall. Though they didn't have a quarterback at the time, wouldn't it have made more sense to put weapons in place for a franchise quarterback, rather than select the quarterback first and then get the pieces? That's why Geno Smith is struggling right now for the Jets, for example.
By taking Russell, Oakland missed out on Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, a decision that would come to haunt them (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
If the Raiders had taken Johnson first, and then maybe traded back up in the second round to take Kevin Kolb, this team would've been set for the future. The Raiders still could've sat Kolb off the bat to groom him, while allowing Johnson to start and get a feel for the NFL. That's a lot of speculation, but could you just imagine Kolb throwing deep bombs to Calvin Johnson over and over again?
I can imagine it, but that's not what happened. They went with a somewhat raw prospect over a player that could have easily been the future for you. If you ever want to ask yourself why the Raiders consistently lose, right there is one of your answers.
These past few weeks, I keep thinking of Russell when people mention Jameis Winston; it's not anything like skin color or the college they went to, but I just see similarities in their behavior and work ethic. Granted, Russell really didn't have these issues until he came to the NFL, while Winston is showing them in college. What worries me, honestly, is that teams will look at Winston and be reminded of JaMarcus Russell - the laziness, the 'me first' attitude, etc.
Winston has the better numbers, sure, but Russell was better off the field, not getting suspended for yelling vulgar phrases in the student union. In a coincidental twist, Winston's coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher, was actually Russell's offensive coordinator with LSU.
I don't know if Winston will turn out to be like Russell, but I sure hope not. It doesn't help that Fisher told the NFL nothing but good things about Russell, and then he turned out to be a jerk. Considering Fisher has been nothing but supportive of Winston over these past two seasons, that doesn't help the case for Winston or Fisher.
And for the people who think Russell should have still done well with what was already there, let's be real for a second. Russell came into a situation where his offense was terrible, his defense wasn't good, and his head coach was Lane Kiffin. I mean, look at the offensive first team for the 2008 Oakland Raiders.
The fact that this team won five games astounds me, even six years later. I'm not saying Russell is entirely off the hook for his struggles, but you can't have a quarterback work with those weapons, not to mention that drama, and expect him to succeed.
I'll give Oakland a bit of credit, because they tried to make the offense better in 2008 and 2009 by adding Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Now, neither lived up to expectations in Oakland, but the point remains that Al Davis and the Raiders made it a priority to build the offense. Could they have gone with better picks, especially when you remember that Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin were still on the board in 2009? Sure, but we can't play the what if game when it comes to the draft; if you want to do that, load up an old Madden game and change around the rosters.
But, how much can you take the blame off Russell? It's clear that once he got his payday, he was content with taking the money and throwing away any chances of him trying to become elite. In fact, Russell's struggles are partly the reason why the NFL changed the amount of money first round picks can earn in their rookie contract, as to avoid another situation like the first overall pick of 2007.
The story of JaMarcus Russell is the same story as Ryan Leaf - they were fantastic college quarterbacks who entered the league with tons of potential, but just couldn't pan out in the NFL. Regardless of whatever is said, JaMarcus Russell is going to go down as one of the biggest busts in league history, having only made 25 disappointing starts for the Oakland Raiders before being cut for his weight.
With all this said, what exactly ruined JaMarcus Russell? Was it his work ethic, something that eventually led to him being cut? Or, did Oakland's bad job of getting a team prepared for their franchise quarterback do Russell in? Personally, I think it was a bit of both, though I'd lean a bit more towards his work ethic. We've seen plenty of quarterbacks work with subpar weapons, so I can't pin Russell's struggles entirely on Oakland.
So, let's end the article on this question - is JaMarcus Russell the biggest bust in NFL history or do you think there's someone worse? Vote in the poll below!
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