Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Burden is on McFadden, Russell to resurrect Raiders
By Bill Williamson ESPN.com
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Darren McFadden has been studying Oakland Raiders history since he was drafted.
He has learned about the franchise's great players and teams of the past. He also knows the current state of the franchise. It's nowhere near what the Raiders of yesteryear were like.
JaMarcus Russell started just one game for the Raiders in 2007.
The rookie thinks he has a solution for the moribund organization that has registered an NFL-low 19 wins the past five seasons. Indeed, the playmaking tailback from Arkansas thinks he knows the combination that can make the Raiders relevant again.
McFadden and Russell.
"JaMarcus and me can help this franchise," the outgoing, polite and confident McFadden said. "We can get it back to the great old Raiders days. We need to."
If the Raiders -- who spent money like the Yankees this offseason -- are to finally climb out of the AFC West gutter, it will have to be because of McFadden and Russell, the Oakland QB who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2007. McFadden, the 20-year-old rookie who just signed a six-year, $60 million deal, is a wise man and a rich one.
Oakland still has plenty of problems on both lines and the receiving crew is shaky at best. But there are signs of improvement under second-year coach Lane Kiffin.
Still, in 2008 and into the future, it will be about McFadden and Russell. If these two offensive centerpieces develop, Oakland can become a serious playoff contender for the next several years. If McFadden and Russell can become Pro Bowl players, the Raiders could be competing for a Super Bowl in two or three years.
If they fail to be impact players, like recent top picks Robert Gallery and Michael Huff, the Raiders will continue to be mired in mediocrity.
Last year, Oakland bypassed wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the cannon-armed Russell out of LSU. After a long holdout last year, Russell played little and is essentially entering his rookie season. Partly because of that, Oakland went 4-12 last season and earned the No. 4 pick in the draft.
The Raiders opted against filling a position of desperate need and nabbed McFadden with the pick even though LSU impact defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was surprisingly still on the draft board. With the next pick, Oakland's AFC West rival, Kansas City, drafted Dorsey. The sequence will help define the direction of the division in the next few years. It could turn out to be a colossal misstep for the Raiders, or it could be gold.
The Raiders need to take risks. Even though the McFadden selection had its share of critics because running back is one of Oakland's strongest positions -- and the Raiders just re-signed Justin Fargas, who is coming off a breakout year -- it was the right move. Any team needs playmakers, and the Oakland offense isn't in the position to pass up on an instant boost.
Plus, Russell needs a co-pilot.
The Raiders' offense has been stomach-turning bad the past two seasons. With Russell and McFadden together, there are no more excuses. This offense has a chance to be explosive because of them.
Last week, after working with his versatile new tailback for the first time with the full squad, Russell realized what this marriage can be, what it must be.
"We have a real chance here," Russell said. "Darren is special. We can make things happen here with him."
After the glow of being taken with the No. 4 pick subsided, McFadden said that one of the first realizations he had was that he'd have the opportunity to play with Russell for the next decade or so.
"I played against him [in the SEC] and I knew how special he was," McFadden said. "When I knew I was going to Oakland. I said, 'Wow, the two SEC guys are going to be able to play together for awhile.' JaMarcus can be special."
If a June minicamp is any indication, the rookie tailback may be closer to making an impact than the second-year quarterback. In the NFL, running backs often develop faster than quarterbacks, and McFadden looked like he had the edge in the minicamp.
It looks like the Raiders will use McFadden in multiple places. In fact, Kiffin said he may need to watch how much he uses McFadden. He was even used as a receiver in some sets last week.
"He's picking things up so fast and they're coming so easy to him," Kiffin said. "Sometimes you don't know that. We researched him so much, but until you really get him on the field, sometimes it takes guys longer to learn things. Not just in the classroom, but the way that their body picks it up. It's really easy for him right now."
It doesn't seem as easy for Russell, who wasn't consistently sharp in minicamp practices. But that is to be expected. Kiffin is confident that Russell, who struggled in December in his only extensive playing time, is ready to be a productive 16-game starter.
"Now he's the guy," Kiffin said of Russell, who played behind Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown for most of 2007. " There is no
question mark. You're the starter and it's your job to take this thing and run
with it, and he's doing fabulous right now."
The question is, can Russell and McFadden be fabulous together? McFadden said the pair has no choice.
"We have to get the old Raiders' winning style back," McFadden said. "It's up to me and JaMarcus."
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.