Ten years. That’s how long it’s been since JaMarcus Russell was the toast of the upcoming NFL draft. The Raiders had the number one overall pick and were in dire need of a quarterback. The freakish physical specimen with loads of barely tapped potential was the favorite to be the pick as the Raiders next franchise quarterback.
We know the story after that. Russell flamed out quickly in Oakland, going on to become arguably the biggest bust in NFL history.
Revisionist historians enjoy pretending that the Raiders selection of Russell was just typical poor drafting by Al Davis. That because of his obsession with physically gifted athletes, Davis alone was blinded to Russell’s flaws due to his 6-6 frame and ability to supposedly be able to throw a ball 60 yards from his knees.
To get a better idea of just how Russell was viewed by not just Davis, but the entire NFL, you practically have to dig up a time capsule.
And I just happen to have one.
Call me a collector. Call me a pack rat. I tend to hold onto certain things to see what kind of value they have down the road or just to see how they hold up under scrutiny.
Such is the case with the April 23, 2007 issue of ESPN the Magazine which had JaMarcus Russell gracing the cover. This nifty little piece of memorabilia has been sitting in a crate in my closet for the past decade.
It makes for a pretty fascinating look back. Not just with the article in the magazine devoted to the ‘talent’ that was JaMarcus Russell, but for other parts of the magazine, all of which tell a story of the thinking at that time.
It was ESPN The Magazine’s Draft Preview issue. There’s JaMarcus Russell on the cover in what could be mistaken for the red non-contact jersey the quarterbacks wear in Raiders’ camp practices. To the left it reads “UPSIDE! JaMarcus Russell is the right man at the right time.”
Flip to the first page and it’s a foldout, with some recognizable players on it, showing 2007 to be a pretty solid draft overall.
From left to right there’s Adrian Peterson, Leon Hall, Gaines Adams, Marshawn Lynch, Greg Olsen, Russell, Amobi Okoye, Calvin Johnson, and Brady Quinn.
That’s a lot of outstanding future NFL talent. Though when you have a team at the top coming off a 2-14 season in which Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter shared duties at quarterback, that team is taking a quarterback. And when the closest quarterback to Russell is Brady Quinn — hello, JaMarcus. ‘The right time’ indeed. Just not for the Raiders.
Those who look back at the Raiders options in that draft don’t mention Quinn much. They usually mention the guy who went at the second overall pick to the Lions – Calvin Johnson. Aka Megatron. Johnson was the most dominant wide receiver in the NFL for a while there. He went to six Pro Bowls and was named All Pro three times. And as Russell’s career crashed and burned just as it got off the ground, the pain of what might have been with Johnson grew stronger.
As I flip through this magazine, I suddenly realize this situation hit me two-fold. You see, I grew up in Portland as a fan of the Trailblazers. They too had the number one overall pick in their draft that year. The two top players in that draft were Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. The Blazers were in desperate need for a center. And that was Oden.
“It’s a phenomenon unique to the NBA,” wrote Bill Simmons. “With 30 teams and only a handful of superstar prospects per decade, landing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant really is like winning the lottery.”
Well, Simmons was half right. The Blazers drafted Greg Oden, leaving Kevin Durant to go to the Seattle Supersonics at number two overall. Oden saw leg injury after leg injury and was a complete bust, while Durant has gone onto an All Star career. Coincidentally Durant is now with the Warriors who Saturday night went up 3-0 over the Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Though Durant was sitting with injury Saturday, he was a big part of the first win of the series.
So, yeah, that year for me was… interesting.
Anyway, eventually we reach the actual article on Russell. It’s titled ‘The Edge of Reason’. It leads out with “JaMarcus Russell carries the kind of talent that makes scouts throw logic out the window. But can he lift a franchise?”
Author David Fleming picks up at Russell’s LSU pro day, focusing on the perspective of a 3-year-old girl named Macy Grace who said Russell was her favorite player.
“These days, Macy Grace isn’t the only one with a schoolgirl crush on him.” Fleming wrote of Russell. It was that big 41-14 Sugar Bowl winning performance by Russell over the Brady Quinn-led Notre Dame Fighting Irish that had those in the NFL ranks falling head over heels for Russell.
Then Texans head coach Gary Kubiak told ESPN of Russell “I’ve never seen a kid who can have people hanging on him and still make the throws he makes. He will go extremely high.”
But it’s clear Fleming saw the flaws in the logic — or lack thereof — by those in the NFL with regard to a player like Russell. The fact so many have pointed to that Sugar Bowl win as the only thing Russell ever really did to earn his draft status isn’t just selective hindsight. That’s how it was seen even then by many who were evaluating him.
Prior to that game, Russell was still seen as a physically gifted project with just one decent season as a starter, and with hardly anything to his credit that would suggest he could be an NFL franchise quarterback.
That Sugar Bowl didn’t just raise Russell’s star, it shot down Quinn’s. Their draft fortunes completely reversed in that game. Quinn had been the it guy up to that point. He started four seasons for Notre Dame. Had he come out after his junior season, he may have been a top ten pick. But his numbers came down as a senior and that Sugar Bowl game exposed some serious flaws. And just like that, he tumbled to the 22 overall pick, to, of course, the Browns. It wasn’t long before the issues scouts saw in Quinn came to pass at the NFL level and he busted out.
It was a classic case of one prospect having a mountain of tape to pour through and nitpick and another whose lack of starts carried with it tremendous “UPSIDE!” A concept Fleming referred to as “impulse buying.” Scouts had made up their mind about Quinn. They were still intrigued by Russell.
Plenty of signs were there of this illogical approach to the most important position in football when it came to evaluating Russell. First of all, he showed up to the combine 10 pounds overweight. Those weight issues would continue throughout his brief NFL career. At one point while with the Raiders he had reportedly ballooned to over 300 pounds.
His poor attitude and priorities were evident as well.
“I know it’s the scout’s job to look everywhere and find things that are wrong.” Russell said following his workout in which he missed several short but crucial NFL type throws. “But I’m pretty sure there’s someone over the scout’s head who will find all the right things I do.”
That last statement sounds as if he were speaking of Al Davis in particular, doesn’t it? Regardless, he was right. Russell was the guy. For Al Davis, and, from the sounds of it, any GM had they been in a similar situation.
Kiper and McShay were both onboard in their mock drafts too. Kiper said of the Raiders’ pick “Easy. JaMarcus Russell is their guy. He has one of the strongest arms the NFL has ever seen.” McShay followed with “They will take Russell because the smart move is to draft the QB of the future.”
While this isn’t about pointing and laughing at Kiper/McShay, you can’t help to with what they said about the Lions at number two. McShay said “They should take Brady Quinn” and Kiper said “If the Lions pass on Quinn it would be yet another in a long line of questionable decisions. I think they will, although not for [Calvin] Johnson. They’ll take Clemson DE Gaines Adams.”
Adams went number 4 to the Buccaneers behind 6-time All Pro left tackle Joe Thomas who has never missed a game and been to the Pro Bowl every season of his career. Adams played three seasons in the NFL with the Bucs and Bears before passing away of an undetected heart condition.
Kiper and McShay’s predictions here make the final page of this issue all the more ironic considering for once Matt Millen would make the right decision as GM of the Lions.
Ten years is not just a round number in this case. They say selecting a bust quarterback at the top of the draft can set a franchise back ten years. For the Raiders, that number appears to be nine. As of last year, the Raiders made their return to the playoffs after 13 non-winning seasons and they made it thanks to their new franchise quarterback, Derek Carr.
This offseason they will be making a long term investment in Carr. He will be heading into the final year of his rookie contract and the Raiders are actively looking to lock him up for the foreseeable future.
Better days have arrived and Russell’s legacy is that of a cautionary tale.
We bury this time capsule as the Raiders ready for the 2017 NFL draft on Thursday with their first pick at 24 overall. That’s a long way from number one overall. Whew.