By Jim Trotter
May 14, 2009

If the Raiders' goal is to see JaMarcus Russell become an elite quarterback, they have a funny way of showing it.

That's not meant to be a cheap shot at the Raiders, whose league-low 24 victories over the past six seasons have made them the butt of countless jokes. Rather it's a sincere way of saying I just don't understand how they're handling Russell.

He struggled for most of his first 1½ seasons but finally showed flashes of promise last December, when he threw two touchdown passes in each of his final three games after tossing only five in his previous 11 games combined. He also completed more than 50 percent of his passes in those games after finishing beneath that mark in six of his previous 11 outings.

But instead of building on that, the Raiders brought in a new quarterbacks coach (Paul Hackett), a new passing game coordinator (Ted Tollner) and hired wideout and tight end coaches who've never been lead position coaches in the NFL. Also, instead of adding an experienced receiver who could be a security blanket for Russell, they plan to rely on rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was taken with the seventh pick in this year's draft.

"Also those things have set him back a year," said one of Russell's former coaches.

Drawing long-term conclusions from a May minicamp is always dangerous, but after watching Russell last weekend it's not a stretch to say the odds are against him becoming a consistent playmaker this year. The strong-armed former LSU product elicited occasional "wows" from onlookers, such as when he found tight end Tony Stewart with a laser pass down the right seam. But mostly he struggled with his accuracy and touch, at one point tossing six consecutive incompletions.

None of this should come as a surprise. Young quarterbacks typically struggle when faced with major changes. The Raiders needed only to have looked across the bay, where 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Smith, who has had a disappointing career with San Francisco, is now on his fifth coordinator in as many seasons.

At the same time Russell cannot be absolved of blame should he struggle. Elite QBs are usually gym rats who are consumed with the game. No one has ever described Russell in that manner. At the owners meetings in March, coach Tom Cable spoke positively of Russell but added: "If he can accept the responsibility of being an NFL quarterback -- working more, working harder, working longer than everybody else, accepting the responsibility that his teammates look to him as the face of the organization, that he has to go above and beyond almost on a daily basis... (if) he can accept that and become that, he'll be fine. He'll be great."



The Raiders can wrap the Russell situation in a positive bow if they like, but the signing of veteran QB Jeff Garcia easily can be construed as a means of protecting themselves "if" Russell doesn't accept the leadership reins. Garcia seemed to echo Cable when he told the Contra Costa Times of Russell: "He has to understand it takes a certain drive and dedication (to be successful), not only how you perform on the field but how teammates follow your lead."

Russell seems reluctant to take the lead at times. He skipped some voluntary workouts earlier in the offseason -- some speculated it was due to the death of a close uncle -- but Yahoo! Sports also reported that he blew off scheduled February workouts with a college teammate because he wanted to relax.

The good thing for the Raiders is that it's only May. The bad thing? It's already May.

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