Silver and Bleak
Top pick JaMarcus Russell was no help in another dismal year for the Raiders, who still like him in the big picture
This is an article from the Dec. 24, 2007 issue
THIS MUCH we know for sure after watching No. 1 draft choice JaMarcus Russell play the opening three series of the second half for the Raiders against the Colts on Sunday: The former LSU quarterback is highly skilled at handing off to tailbacks (must remember to take No-Doz) and extremely efficient at checking down to fullbacks (must ... stifle ... yawn). Beyond that, no conclusions can be drawn.
Russell took 11 snaps in the 21--14 loss, handing off on six of them and checking down on two others. He attempted three passes to wideouts or tight ends—a short curl that was incomplete, a 15-yard cross that was dropped and a fade that was wide and long—then returned to the sideline for good. It was Russell's second appearance of the season, following a cameo in Oakland's Week 13 home victory over Denver.
More than anything, it appears that juggling such priorities as Russell's development, winning games and transforming a culture of a team suffering through its fifth consecutive season of at least 10 losses is more difficult than first-year coach Lane Kiffin had imagined. He acknowledged as much on Sunday night. "We had made a commitment that we were going to play him and develop him and give him some snaps," Kiffin said. "Did that cost us winning the game? I won't be able to answer that question for you."
The plan going in was to get Russell a couple of series in the second quarter, but that changed after starter Josh McCown directed a 20-play, 99-yard drive that ate up nearly 12 minutes and culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass to Ronald Curry, cutting Indianapolis's lead to 10--7. By the time the Raiders got the ball again, following Thomas Howard's interception of Peyton Manning, 1:25 remained in the half. "With under two minutes to go, for those to be his first snaps, I don't think that was really going to help him," Kiffin said of Russell. "We need him to have success."
But in the larger picture the Raiders need some successes, too, if Kiffin is going to transform his club. "This team needs to learn how to win," the coach said, "and it needs to understand how to be competitive."
If you're playing to win, you return to McCown to start the third quarter. Kiffin did not. When McCown was finally sent back in after Russell's ineffective effort, two minutes remained in the third quarter. McCown promptly drove Oakland 60 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown and a 14--13 lead.
Kiffin and the Raiders have been wrestling all season with when to play Russell, who missed training camp while his contract was being negotiated and did not sign until Sept. 11, two days after a season-opening loss to the Lions. "You've got to make sure, as best you can, that he's going to succeed when he goes in there," the coach said. "That's the point of only giving him so many plays. Ben Roethlisberger had a Super Bowl--caliber team around him when he came in as a rookie with Pittsburgh. That makes the adjustment a lot easier."
Said left tackle Barry Sims, "It's good that he got in and got some playing time. But when Josh was in there, we were able to be a little more efficient. It just shows there's a learning process, and that's why [Russell] hasn't been starting all year. It's a tough game to learn, especially at that position."
As for whether Russell will play again this season—Oakland finishes with Jacksonville and San Diego, two teams with punishing defenses—Kiffin was noncommittal. If Russell is done, his rookie stat line reads: five series, six first downs, 6 of 12 passing for 66 yards, zero points put on the scoreboard.
Those numbers won't make anyone forget Tom Brady, but Russell remains the player who gives the Raiders the best chance for a turnaround. Veteran wideout Jerry Porter says Russell's arm is the strongest he's ever seen. More than that, teammates speak about his maturity. McCown points to Russell's private work with a position coach on Mondays and Tuesdays. "Those are your days off," McCown said. "So if you're not taking those, you're looking at seven-day workweeks. That's a tough thing to do for anybody in any profession. That's what makes him a joy to be around. He understands that he's the future. He understands that he's the guy. He understands that the foundation is being laid now for how he's going to play later."
For his part, Russell isn't in position to demand the ball, and he knows it—he trusts Kiffin to make the right decision. "I'm a very confident guy," Russell says. "At times you can get a little down on yourself and things, but I recover very fast."
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The football gods were not happy that the coach of a 4--9 team on a seven-game losing streak, the Ravens' Brian Billick, would play for overtime rather than go for a win on fourth down at the opponent's one-yard line with 12 seconds left in regulation. So after Matt Stover kicked the short field goal that gave Baltimore a 16--16 tie at Miami, he missed a 44-yarder in OT. Cleo Lemon then hit Greg Camarillo for a 64-yard touchdown pass that gave the Dolphins their first victory of the year. Think Billick (above) was playing the percentages? Consider that since 2004, NFL teams have successfully converted 67.1% of fourth-and-one attempts. By contrast, in that same span road teams have won just 46.9% of overtime games. Two years ago Dick Vermeil of the Chiefs went for a TD from one yard out with five seconds left and beat Oakland 27--23.