JaMarcus Russell Football’s Cautionary Tale

Steve O Speak

JaMarcus Russell is a fascinating case study, not only in what you shouldn’t do as a team, but also what you shouldn’t do as a player. Russell will go down as one of the biggest busts in NFL history, not only for being so completely overvalued, but also for his personal decisions that kept him from developing. Russell’s case shows exactly what teams and players shouldn’t do if they want success in the NFL.

For as much as we can malign the Raiders for their draft strategy and ‘overdrafting’ Russell, we need to remember that Russell was considered a top 5 talent by a number of analysts. And while few people may have had him number 1 overall, it wasn’t a huge of a reach as most people think. Looking back though, we think the Raiders were out of their mind selecting Russell first overall. But at the time, that backlash didn’t occur. In fact, I would say more people blasted the Dolphins for passing on Brady Quinn (not that Ted Ginn turned out to be worth the 9th pick), than did for the Raiders drafting Russell with the top spot. At the time it made some sense to draft Russell, but in reality what were people thinking? Russell displayed just about every warning sign possible; he was a (redshirt) junior quarterback, coming off only one big season, his bowl game propelled him over Quinn as the top QB (and a top player), and he had good combine and workout numbers, and was considered better than he was given his athleticism, size, and arm strength. Let’s look at those factors one at a time and see why they are so important.

While being a redshirt junior is better than Russell being just a three year junior, it is pretty telling that most (not all) successful quarterbacks are 4 or 5 year seniors. Also they have 3-4 years of full starting experience under their belt (Russell had just two and a half). Russell was never considered a very cerebral passer and in fact completed just 50% of his passes his redshirt freshman year.

That leads into the next big warning sign; him being a one year wonder. Russell’s first ‘year’ as a starter, he actually split time with another quarterback. While LSU probably wanted Russell to win the job outright, his numbers didn’t warrant him being the everydown starter. His sophomore year Russell fared better, but put up just average numbers. It wasn’t until his junior year where teams really took notice of him. And Russell did have an impressive year, but what people didn’t realize is he was surrounded by NFL talent, which helped hide some deficiencies in his game. By only evaluating just that one good year of film, NFL teams ignored the majority of his career where he was between awful-average, not exactly what you are looking for in a top overall pick.

Russell saved one of his best games for last as he led LSU to a Sugar Bowl victory, by throwing for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns while rushing for another. What made his Sugar Bowl victory even more important was the fact that LSU beat Notre Dame and Brady Quinn in that game. Not only did Russell knock off Quinn in that game, but he also began to knock him off some draft boards as well. If one wants to look for the biggest reason why Russell’s stock was so high, that Sugar Bowl game is the place to start. Drafting a player based on a Bowl Game is a very risky strategy, yet it is done all the time. The “what have you done for me lately” mentality is still dominate in draft war rooms.

The other thing draft war rooms like are the workout and combine numbers. Could there be less important factors for a quarterback than his workout numbers? Sure you want to see a little foot speed or explosion in his jumps demonstrating lower body strength, but these shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for a quarterback. Even in the throwing drills how much can you really learn about a quarterback. So what if he can ‘make all the throws’ without pads, a pass rush, or a defender covering his target. Workouts are extremely perfunctory for quarterbacks as all they can show is the arm works. Anyone can throw the ball in the scripted workouts to receivers they have worked with for years. The true test of a quarterback is in the game. This also comes into play with the idea that a quarterback has the ‘ideal size’ or ‘great arm strength’. Sure those things are important, but there is a huge difference between throwing a ball 70 yards and completing a ball 70 yards. Arm strength is great, but completing the ball and advancing downfield are a lot better. And what does ‘ideal size’ mean, successful QB’s come in all shapes and sizes to give credit to a weaker quarterback just because he has ‘ideal size’ isn’t going to make him a better player. Yes, I understand big quarterbacks have more success, but if a quarterback gets the job done does it really matter what size he is? While I think workout numbers and size questions for other positions are important, since they can tell plenty of things about potential, they have little impact on the success of a QB.

All of these factors came together in a perfect storm to create the hype and buzz that Russell received leading up to the draft, and allowed him to go 1st overall. This shows the inherent risk of allowing the myth dictate his draft status and not the game experience. Russell may have been unready for the NFL and over-hyped, but he still shouldn’t have failed so miserably. Russell should have had some sort of NFL future. He did have the physical tools, and impressive arm strength. Not to mention the fact that he did show vast improvement from the beginning of his college career, showing that he could develop. For once I think the Raiders are mostly not to blame for the lack of development of Russell. Oakland did a decent job of not rushing him, despite his top pick status, and they did try to add weapons around him (though not an offensive line). Russell has no one to blame but himself for his lack of development (aka why he is out of a job right now).

Russell’s problem started from day one, and was due to the fact that he held out, meaning day one for him was after the season already started. It is probably a pretty dumb move for any rookie to hold out (especially when one way or another you were going to be getting tens of millions of dollars), but even more so for a quarterback. While all positions on the field have a symbiotic relationship with one another, the quarterback position is tied the most closely with the rest of the offensive positions. A quarterback needs practice receiving the snap, just as they need to practice handing off the ball. And most importantly a quarterback has to be in tune with this receivers to have any hope of success. By holding out, Russell lost valuable practice time, working with these players and learning the playbook.  On top of gaining that rapport with his offensive teammates, he lost all that time reading NFL defenses in practice, which is the biggest hurdle young quarterbacks face. Also by not signing until after the season started, he missed the chance to play in all the preseason games, which would have proved invaluable. Maybe Russell ended up winning the battle over the contract he signed, but he lost the war, because he severely set himself back. And now 4 years later is out of a job and no closer to being an NFL ready quarterback. Russell also lost fan support by holding out, which helped cause his downfall in Oakland.

Russell compounded his rookie mistakes, by never becoming the leader that was expected of him or working out to make himself a better quarterback. Despite the hype that surrounded him, Russell never seemed to care to reach it. I guess he just assumed it would come natural to him, and he would become a great quarterback. But when you look around the league the best quarterbacks are the most competitive and work the hardest. Russell doesn’t display either quality and that is why he never got any better as a signal caller.

Russell legacy will be that he shows both player and team what not to do. For teams, don’t draft a quarterback based on hype and speculation. Draft them because they are deserving of that pick (especially a top pick). As for players, it is probably not worth holding out your rookie season since it can only set you back, and damage your relationship with the team and fans. Maybe squeezing out that extra million or two is nice then and there, but it doesn’t do you much good if you screw your career up.

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