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Monday, November 3, 2008
Scouts Inc.: Russell walking tightrope in Oakland

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd

 
 Kyle Terada/US Presswire
 Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell has not had an easy transition to the NFL.

The Oakland Raiders' schedule is only half finished, and already it has been a long, brutal season for quarterback JaMarcus Russell.

Without a doubt, the low point came in Sunday's 24-0 loss to the Falcons, in which Russell completed just six of 19 attempts for 31 yards. He absorbed four sacks, coughed up a fumble and threw a pick. Wasn't this guy a No. 1 draft pick? With Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco more than holding their own as rookie starters, has Russell already proven that he won't live up to his draft status?

First, let's get a few things straight. Quarterback is the most difficult position to play in the NFL, period. Doing it well as a rookie is rare (Ryan and Flacco notwithstanding). And because Russell held out before last season and didn't arrive in training camp until September, he missed an enormous developmental opportunity. Camp is about learning fundamentals, improving the understanding of concepts and getting in reps. The whole dynamic changes once the season starts, when teaching takes a back seat to game planning. And because he played very little until the last two weeks of the season (after leaving LSU as a junior), Russell might as well be a rookie now.

That explains why his reads, progressions and processing are so far behind. And because young, big-armed quarterbacks often believe they can throw through anything, he has predictably forced some balls into coverage. I see no significant flaws in Russell's mechanics, but he has so little experience running a pro-style offense and breaking down complex back-end coverages that it's no surprise he has struggled.

Russell's surroundings in Oakland have been just as detrimental. Say what you will about Lane Kiffin, but he had a solid track record of working with quarterbacks and he played to Russell's strengths while carefully developing his young quarterback. Though Kiffin's West Coast offense was complex (another reason behind Russell's slow progress), the Raiders' run game thrived and the passing scheme's shorter drops and routes allowed Russell to get the ball out quicker. Under Kiffin, Russell also seemingly was asked to read only half the field on a majority of plays, which made for simpler reads and helped the quarterback avoid game-changing mistakes and build his confidence. Since Tom Cable took over as interim coach, the Raiders are stretching the field more (a good thing), but they're doing it without the benefit of good protection, receivers who are able to create separation or a run game that creates favorable down-and-distance scenarios (a very bad thing).

Consider the Falcons game "Exhibit A." Russell never had a chance. Oakland couldn't run the ball, receivers weren't getting open and the offensive line looked like a turnstile as Russell got blown up time after time on five- and seven-step drops. Eventually, that sort of treatment gets to a quarterback. Russell already looks like a quarterback playing with minimal confidence, and if he isn't already a bit skittish in the pocket, he will be. Just ask David Carr.

So where do the Raiders go from here? If they're going to let Russell play, they must downsize the offense and use fewer formations and fewer route combinations. They must go back to allowing Russell to read half the field and give him levels to throw to on the strong side. The Raiders need to put him in more situations that allow him to be successful and must continue to find things that work for him. Until the rest of this team shows improvement, Oakland must protect Russell's body and psyche as much as possible.

A better plan: Let him learn. Send Russell to the sideline to regroup and get a different vantage point of the game, which can be helpful for a growing quarterback. The Raiders may believe they don't have that luxury, but what is the alternative? This situation looks like a runaway train with no stops along the way. Hopefully, Russell has the mental toughness to handle it, but Oakland is at risk of letting its franchise quarterback slip away.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.