JaMarcus Russell returns to hometown with stigma of Oakland Raiders failure
JaMarcus Russell returns to hometown with stigma of Oakland Raiders failure | - NOLA.com
JaMarcus Russell returns to hometown with stigma of Oakland Raiders failure
By Nakia Hogan, The Times-Picayune
May 15, 2010, 11:28PM
JaMarcus Russell came back to a town that can't fix its collective lips to call him a bust. He returned to a neighborhood that still has his back. He revisited a high school that -- no matter what happened in Oakland -- continues to believe he was the best player in the 2007 draft.
Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune
Former LSU and Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell has returned to Mobile, Ala., where he's still a hometown hero.
When the Oakland Raiders decided it was time to cut bait with Russell, the former LSU star quarterback and No. 1 overall pick in 2007, Mobile, Ala., called Russell home.
That's because this is where he still is wanted, loved, revered and believed in. This is where his family and many of his old friends still live.
But Russell, who suddenly found himself unemployed, albeit after making $39 million in the past three years, wasn't the one who needed consoling.
Much of this town did.
From his spectacular playing days at Williamson High School, to his starring role at LSU, to his selection into the NFL, Russell galvanized this town with a cartoon-like strong arm and an ability to bring his team back from almost any deficit.
The news of Russell's release was a blow to the town's collective gut.
By most accounts, Russell has not sulked. Instead he has been the one offering soothing words to his supporters.
"I did not have to console him, " said Bernice Russell, his grandmother. "He had to console me.
"But you will never know, and I will never know how he is doing, because JaMarcus keeps a smile on his face no matter how much he is hurting on the inside."
Russell, who could not be reached for comment, hasn't spoken publicly since his release May 6. But he hasn't been hiding out, either.
Longtime friends and confidants in his hometown have said Russell is holding up well, as the mass media continues to label him as perhaps the biggest NFL draft bust in history.
"I just believe that he will bounce back, " said Williamson Coach Bobby Parish, who coached Russell in high school. "It's just a situation where I think the kid wants it. You have a name, and your name is so important to you, and you don't want five or 10 years from now to see your name on some billboard as being the worst player or biggest bust. I think he'll bounce back."
Russell always has been able to overcome adversity on the playing field, rallying his troops to comeback wins that only added to his legacy.
Quarterbacks taken with the first pick in the modern NFL era
But no one truly knows how Russell will respond now.
"It was wonderful (when Russell was playing well) because there was no end to the fun, " Bernice Russell said. "And everybody loved him. There is an old saying that everybody loves you when you are up, and nobody likes you when you are down."
Where did it go wrong?
Russell was considered one of those can't-miss prospects. Blessed with the physical tools that few other quarterbacks possessed, he was expected to be the one to lead the Raiders back to the Super Bowl.
Three years in, however, the Raiders' selection of Russell has been a massive failure.
He guided the Raiders to seven victories in 25 starts, completing just 52.1 percent of his passes, with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He also lost 15 fumbles, was sacked 70 times and had a 65.2 passer rating.
Those are not numbers befitting a No. 1 overall pick who was handed a seven-year contract with $32 million guaranteed.
Russell's shortcomings in Oakland seemingly can't be placed solely on his broad shoulders.
Certainly the Raiders' organization has to take its fair share of the blame, as Russell's development as a professional quarterback was sabotaged almost from the outset, some of Russell's supporters have said.
It started with a long holdout. Russell missed his entire rookie training camp.
It also didn't help that there was infighting between owner Al Davis and then-coach Lane Kiffin, who didn't want to draft Russell.
Then there was the constant shuffling of coaches. Russell had four different play-callers in his three seasons.
It also didn't help Russell that he lost three uncles in less than a year in 2009, including his mentor, Ray Russell.
Combine that with a poor offensive line and mediocre receiving corps, and it all has the makings of a disaster, the next Ryan Leaf, the next big bust.
"No kid drafted No. 1 has ever faced what this kid faced, " former Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp told the Oakland Tribune. "He walked into arguably the most dysfunctional franchise in professional sports in the past 20 years. Ryan Leaf had a squad around him. They had some weapons to work with. Russell had nothing. He never had a chance."
Russell is at fault, as well.
His critics point to poor work habits and a lack of leadership skills as the biggest reasons he failed in Oakland, where he averaged $5.6 million per win and $2.17 million per touchdown pass.
"He has got the physical skill set, but the one thing we see at quarterback is ... leadership, the work ethic, the commitment, all the things that you have to be in terms of a quarterback, JaMarcus failed at miserably, " said NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a former Raiders executive. "He holds out his rookie season. Most rookie quarterbacks who are the first pick overall, they want to get in camp, they want to get going, they want to try and make it work. JaMarcus held out that entire (rookie training camp), so he loses that whole season basically.
"Then he doesn't endear himself to his teammates. He never builds equity with his teammates by going in the weight room, by working hard, by preparing, by not falling asleep in the meeting, by studying, by understanding, by committing himself."
Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who recruited Russell to LSU, isn't buying all the criticism.
"I still think that JaMarcus Russell is a very talented young man, " Saban said. "The thing that JaMarcus needs is someone to give him a structure of things that will help him be successful. And I know he will follow the plan. He always did that. He's not a defiant guy in any way. He wants to please you, and if he gets in the right organization with the right group of people, they can affect him and he can be very successful in the National Football League."
Sticking by their man
Maysville's Barber Shop, which is just a short walk from the Williamson campus where Russell first became a star, is unusually quiet on this afternoon until the talk turned to their old buddy.
Mention the Oakland Raiders, and swear words begin to fly.
The team they began to love on that April day in 2007 is now hated. Some of those silver and black caps and Raider nation T-shirts have already been tossed into the trash.
When the Oakland Raiders cut Russell, they also lost a legion of fans in Alabama.
"When they cut JaMarcus, it was like they cut Maysville, " barber Moses Packer said. "It was like you lost a homey."
Indeed. Some in this town, a few which have never met Russell, said it was a blow to hear the deflating news that Russell had been released.
"I can't speak for the entire town, but the ones I know continue to lift him, " said Russell's pastor, Rev. Gabe Davis. "His friends and family we are praying for him."
Nothing riles up his friends like the word "bust" being associated with Russell.
They understand he was paid a lot of money to produce on the football field, but they also said the Raiders failures are bigger than one player, especially the one that happens to be their friend.
"He's not a bust, " said Reginald Payton, a longtime Russell friend. "JaMarcus will be all right. It's like he just fell and scraped his knee. He'll get up and put some Neosporin on it."
Rayford Parker, Russell's former offensive coordinator at Williamson, agreed.
"We are pulling for him, just like we were when he was a high school student, " Parker said. "Our spirits are sort of dampened at this point. It's almost getting to where it's bigger than football. His success is bigger than football to us.
"It bothers you when you hear that people say he's a bust. But I can't validate that. That's not the guy that we coached. It's a different thing that we saw. But naturally it's disheartening."
While supporters and critics continue to quibble over whether Russell is the biggest bust in NFL history, hardly anyone doubts the 6-foot-6, 265-pound quarterback will get a shot to redeem himself in the NFL.
High draft picks almost always get a second chance.
Leaf, the former No. 2 overall pick of the San Diego Chargers in 1998, was considered the biggest bust in league history after posting a 4-14 record in 18 games for the Chargers before being cut. He resurfaced in Dallas for a season, then was cut again.
Tim Couch, the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in 1999, played five seasons. But he was labeled a bust after compiling a 22-37 record. He was released in 2004, and tried out for several other teams.
Akili Smith, the No. 3 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1999, was given shots by the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the Bengals cut him in 2002 with a 3-14 record as a starter.
Russell is believed to be as gifted as each of those players. And at 24, he is still young enough to be tutored.
"The bottom line is when someone is the first pick in the entire draft, generally speaking they are going to get a second chance, if not a third, " longtime NFL executive Phil Savage said. "There are several situations out there that I think would be willing to take a chance on his immense talents. There is no disputing the fact that he has rare physical abilities. There are some things that he needs to do and demonstrate that he has a real desire to become an NFL quarterback at that level.
"But I certainly have the confidence that if JaMarcus puts his mind to it that he will succeed in the NFL. He has too much ability for someone not to take a chance, and ultimately somebody will."
Until then, though, Savage, a Mobile native who has known Russell since the quarterback took part in Savage's football camp as a kid, said it's too early to label Russell.
"Even in the instant-analysis world that we live in, I think it is a little early to say (bust) when he has only been on one team, " Savage said. "If he ultimately ends up on two or three teams and he never pans out, then maybe it is fair. But after one team I would certainly say it is premature."
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