Friday May 7th, 2010

Doing a post-mortem to the end of the JaMarcus Russell error in Oakland doesn't require a degree in forensics. The cause of death for his career as a Raiders quarterback was on display almost every day of his three-plus years in silver and black: A chronic and apparently incurable aversion to work and the necessary dedication to his craft.

Simply put, Russell didn't want it badly enough, and having already been paid millions for his potential, he never got around to convincing himself that it was time to repay the Raiders in production.

All of which makes it a very dubious proposition to suppose Russell discovers some new-found devotion to the game of football and the art of quarterbacking wherever he might land in the second act of his still-young NFL career (he turns 25 in August).

If he didn't feel the need to commit himself fully with Oakland, which will wind up lavishing the draft's first overall pick in 2007 with $39.6 million, why does it stand to reason Russell will re-invent himself if lucky enough to work for relative peanuts and fall under the tutelage of a proven quarterback-molder such as Mike Shanahan in Washington, Josh McDaniels in Denver, Gary Kubiak in Houston or Mike Holmgren in Cleveland? Not that any of those NFL locales, mind you, look particularly likely as Russell's next place of employment.

In talking with league sources who were in position to watch and assess the entire span of Russell's three-year debacle in Oakland, I came away highly skeptical of the notion that Russell's fatal flaws can be fixed by any of the game's current quarterback savants, because he lacks the one essential ingredient, and that's a will to work at it.

Russell will almost certainly get another chance in another uniform, because everyone always does, even the Ryan Leafs, J.P. Losmans, and Joey Harringtons of the NFL world (oops, sorry about that, Tim Couch). But that doesn't mean he's salvageable, or that his next team will be able to supply what he so clearly lacks or figure out where his motivational buttons are and how to consistently push them.

Said one league source with first-hand knowledge of Russell's tenure in Oakland: "He just refused to work at it. That sums up the whole thing. He was in love with the idea of being a wealthy young guy, but he has no drive to be a great quarterback. He's a young guy who came into a lot of money and notoriety by virtue of being the No. 1 pick. But in that situation, unless you have that special motivation, what's the point of working hard? If you already have the money, the only thing that keeps you improving is the work ethic.

"[The Raiders] knew the question about his self-motivation going into the 2007 draft. They gambled, and they lost. I just think he doesn't really want to be an NFL player. He was a great college football player, but he didn't want it in the NFL. If he keeps playing now, he plays only out of boredom. And even Pacman Jones says he's had enough partying and wants to play again. At some point, they all get bored with the other stuff.''

Leagues sources said from start to finish in Oakland, the light never remotely started to come on for Russell as a Raider. His maturity level never ticked upward in a hopeful fashion, and his work habits (or lack thereof) never changed. He wore out something of a path between Oakland and Las Vegas (at least in terms of the flight path), but he flat out refused to wear out much of anything on the practice field or in the weight room. Russell was in love with the lifestyle of being an NFL player, but he was never in love with the game or what it takes to play it.

When I asked a league source what Russell struggled with the most in Oakland, what part of his game, the answer was devastating: "Everything. Every aspect of the position,'' the source said. "If you had a checklist of everything you want your quarterback to do, he chose not to do it. He chose not to study, not to work out, not to be communicative with teammates, not to exhibit leadership, not to get himself into shape. And he struggled with accuracy, with reading defenses, with audibling. They almost had to run a sub-NFL-level offense with him at quarterback. It was that limiting.

"It obviously sucked up a lot of energy from the coaching staff and the management just to get him ready to play every week. Theoretically, you draft a first-round quarterback to help your team. But the Raiders just cut a first-round quarterback to help their team. It's the ultimate addition by subtraction, and you're going to notice a difference in Oakland. [Thursday] might have been a tough day for the rest of the AFC West, because the Raiders just got better.''

You can't help but deduce that the Raiders got it right this time. They've been wandering in the NFL wilderness for seven long years now, but maybe they really are starting to find their way. Just juxtapose how we started this offseason and how wrong the conventional wisdom has been when it comes to Oakland.

On the day after the Raiders 5-11 regular season ended in early January, the NFL's so-called "Black Monday,'' a death watch of sorts started for head coach Tom Cable, who reportedly was about to be fired. The group-think was that Cable was out, and Russell was safe, because owner Al Davis would never admit defeat this early when it came to his hand-picked first-round quarterback. Everyone knew that Cable, like Lane Kiffin before him, was convinced he couldn't win with Russell, and Davis would never abide by that judgment.

The only thing is, he did. Lo and behold, Cable's still here, and Russell is gone. Davis did not protect his young quarterback at his team's peril, and in retaining Cable he voted in favor of stability and continuity, two near-invisible elements of Oakland's seven-year streak of double-digit loss seasons.

And when the Raiders capped a very strong and well-received draft week of work by wisely trading a 2012 fourth-round pick to Washington for quarterback Jason Campbell -- himself a still-young former first-round pick who has yet to reach his full potential -- it made us reassess the caricature we've drawn of Davis in recent years. Maybe he's not completely held hostage to his ego. Maybe he is still open to change and capable of focusing on winning after all.

Russell was clearly not the source of all that has ailed Oakland since the Raiders made that Super Bowl run in the '02 season. But he had come to personify the mistakes and misjudgments of the franchise's losingest era ever, and it was impossible to see the Raiders ever moving beyond their nadir until Russell moved on. No one in Oakland ever said he was a bad person, just a bad quarterback. And you can't win in the NFL with one of those.

Russell never put in the work it takes to play the position he was drafted to play in Oakland. I'm doubtful he ever will, no matter where he signs. But the Raiders are finally doing their share of the heavy lifting that's required to succeed in the NFL, and it kind of changes the dynamic of how we view them. If you were of a certain sloganeering mindset, you could almost call it a "renewed commitment to excellence.'' In Oakland, they like that sort of thing.

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