The annual rite ofwinter in pro football--picking apart draft prospects--was heating up lastweekend at the sweatshop known as the NFL scouting combine. The two topcandidates to go No. 1 on April 28, quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and BradyQuinn, were getting it with both barrels, from the media and from scouts andcoaches whispering among themselves. Quinn couldn't win the big one at NotreDame, wasn't accurate enough, threw three or four brain-lock passes a game.Needed a haircut too. LSU's Russell was a little doughy at his weigh-in (265pounds on his 6'5 1/2" frame), didn't have Quinn's college experience,isn't particularly mobile or consistent in his mechanics and--this one from NFLNetwork analyst Mike Mayock--might not have the work ethic or love for the gameto justify the guaranteed $30 million the top pick will command this year.
When that last bitof combine prattle traveled the four blocks from the RCA Dome to thesixth-floor Omni hotel suite of Russell's agents just before midnight lastSaturday, the 21-year-old quarterback, who left Baton Rouge a year early toenter the draft, just shook his head. But his uncle, Ray Russell, nearly jumpedout of his chair. "Doesn't love football!" Ray said with disgust, hisincredulity working him into a lather. "Put it like this: The boy's in 10thgrade, going into 11th, and there's this quarterback camp that's supposed to bethe best in the country, the Elite 11 in California. We get into our car inMobile and drive 2 1/2 days to get to that camp--so he can get the waterbottles and help run drills for the 11 guys in camp. That's how importantfootball is to him."
JaMarcus, thoughmore subdued, was similarly indignant. "My junior year in high school, theweek before the state playoffs, we're down 21--0 at halftime," he said."We come back late, score to make it 21--20, and we go for two. I jump upand pass for it, and when I come down I get in a pile and my foot gets alltwisted up. We win, but my ankle's swelling up real bad. They take me to thehospital. The nurse twists it around a little bit and says, 'Six to eightweeks. You're out.' They hand me crutches. It's bad all week. I get it packed acouple of nights in red clay and vinegar, like a cast. I don't know what thatdoes, but I tried to practice a little on Thursday and played Friday night.Torched 'em. We won."
Over the nexteight weeks the Russell-Quinn debate will be the hottest topic in the nonstopworld of draft analysis. Film will be broken down, past performances pickedapart in detail. Questions will be raised about each player's development,leadership ability, intelligence, arm strength, foot speed, conditioning,desire. The opinions won't stop coming until one is selected, most likely bythe quarterback-needy Oakland Raiders, who own the first pick. The consolationprize for the other will likely be a job with the Detroit Lions (pickingsecond), Cleveland Browns (third), Minnesota Vikings (seventh) or MiamiDolphins (ninth). Quinn is the ultrapolished son Marv Marinovich never had,dying to be the top pick; Russell is the polite upstart, refusing to politicfor the position.
For much of thepast year Quinn, a four-year starter for the Fighting Irish, has been theodds-on favorite to be the draft's first pick. But he played poorly in badlosses to highly ranked Michigan and USC. Meanwhile, Russell, a starter fortwo-plus seasons, performed better than Quinn against top competition as ajunior in 2006 and proved to be a more accurate intermediate and deep thrower.Russell's higher completion percentage last fall, .678 to Quinn's .619, takeson added significance when combined with the fact that his average gain perattempt was significantly higher (9.1 yards to 7.3) than Quinn's.
When Notre Dameand LSU squared off in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, it was no contest: Russell ranthe Tigers' offense to perfection--21 for 34, a career-high 332 yards and twotouchdowns passing, plus another TD rushing--and LSU rolled, 41--14. Quinn, whowas chased all over the Superdome for four quarters, looked jittery andstruggled (15 for 35, 148 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions)."You can't judge a book by one page," Quinn said with a stiff upper lipin Indy. "Hopefully NFL teams will read the whole book on me."
They will, but thefirst pick is Russell's to lose heading into his March 14 workout on the LSUcampus. Quinn will work out for NFL teams on March 4 and 22 in South Bend. Asis customary for projected top choices, neither player threw at the combine.Both were weighed and measured and had interviews with individual teams. Quinnchose to bench-press; he blew away the rest of the quarterback class with aguardlike 24 reps of 225 pounds (which would mean something if pressing strongsafeties was part of a quarterback's job).
Everyone knowsRaiders boss Al Davis loves the deep ball, and Russell will enter the NFL withone of the strongest arms ever. Taking one normal step, he has thrown the ball82 yards. With downfield threats Randy Moss and Jerry Porter likely to remainin Oakland next fall and with a porous offensive line, the Raiders aredesperate for a quarterback who can get off the long pass and take a hit.Russell is this draft's prototype for the durable bomber. And his hands aresome of the biggest ever measured at a combine. "When he grips theball," said Vikings VP of player personnel Rick Spielman, "he makes itlook like one of those Nerf footballs."
The top of thisdraft looks a lot like 1998's. That year Washington State's Ryan Leaf was thebig, strong guy with a great deep arm; Tennessee's Peyton Manning was the headypasser who hadn't won the big game in college. Manning went No. 1 to theIndianapolis Colts, Leaf No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers. Nine years laterManning sits atop the football world, and Leaf is a college golf coach in WestTexas. "The repercussions of this pick will last for years," saidBrowns general manager Phil Savage. "You're picking a flavor, basically.Brady's probably the safer pick. He's been so well-schooled in every aspect ofquarterback play, and we've had three or four years to evaluate him becausehe's played so much college football. And people in this league respect [NotreDame] coach Charlie Weis. They'll listen to him about Brady. Maybe there's moreupside with JaMarcus because he's so physically gifted. It's a toughcall."
The competitionbetween Quinn and Russell, which started at the Sugar Bowl, extended toAthletes' Performance in Tempe, Ariz., a private workout facility where theywere among 30 top draft prospects who left their campuses in January to trainin isolation for their NFL auditions. The two were in different workout groupsand didn't spend much time together; Quinn quickly partnered with USC receiverDwayne Jarrett, a first-round prospect, while Russell and several otherwideouts hung together.
"It's no bigdeal," Quinn said of the distance between the two passers in Tempe. "Wejust sort of had different schedules."
Russell and hisuncle Ray saw it as a bigger issue. "I don't know what happened,"JaMarcus said. "I'm a friendly guy. Get along with everybody. But he keptthe conversations short."
"The cat[Quinn] was like 007," said Ray. "I said to JaMarcus, 'This guy got aproblem with you?'"
The two werefriendly enough when they met on Sunday morning in a weight room at the combinefor a photo shoot, shaking hands and bumping chests in the standard athletes'embrace. When the photographer asked them to face one another, inches apart,Quinn said fetchingly to Russell, "You got such pretty eyes." They bothbroke up laughing.
Make nomistake--this is a rivalry. Not between enemies, but between two players eachstrident in the belief that he's the best quarterback in this draft. Russellfeels he was late getting the national respect he deserved; despite a 25--4record as the Tigers' starter, he was never a serious Heisman candidate. Quinnhad said he had three goals as a college football player: winning a nationaltitle, winning the Heisman and being the top pick in the draft. With the firsttwo out the window and the third slipping away, he's doing everything in hispower to convince teams that he ought to be the top pick. "I'm the mostprepared player in the draft," he said last Friday, away from the crush ofthe combine for a few minutes. "There's not one other player who's gonethrough what I have--a national TV game every week, getting every team's bestshot. I want teams to know how much I love this game. I want to play footballtill they drag me out of the game. I want to be like Flutie or Favre."
Likewise, Russellis determined to counter those who would question his work ethic and love offootball. "For people to say that, it's crazy," he said in the hotelsuite. "That adds a lot of fuel to my fire."
"But you don'tlove the game, baby!" chided Ray Russell to his nephew.
"Yeah,"said JaMarcus, shaking his head slightly, hands thrust in the pockets of hisnew NFL jacket. "I don't love football. We'll see about that."
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"The repercussions of this pick will last FOR YEARS," says Savage, theBrowns' G.M. "Brady's probably the safer pick. ¬†Maybe there's moreupside with JaMarcus. It's a tough call."