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October 31, 2011
The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft should be out on the field commanding an NFL team this Sunday. JaMarcus Russell, though, is home in Mobile, absorbing shots to his character and resting on what's left of his $39 million. The most maligned figure in football tells his side
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October 31, 2011

The Man Who Isn't There

The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft should be out on the field commanding an NFL team this Sunday. JaMarcus Russell, though, is home in Mobile, absorbing shots to his character and resting on what's left of his $39 million. The most maligned figure in football tells his side

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Start with the Raiders. The team may share a venue with the A's, the franchise that gave us Moneyball, but drafting Russell was a classic case of overvaluing a player based on intuition and misleading data. While few doubted his abilities in the run-up to the draft—"I can't remember being in such awe of a quarterback in my decade of attending combines and pro days," said ESPN's Todd McShay—some voiced concern over less quantifiable aspects of Russell's game, in particular his maturity. Was his laid-back nature a reflection of poise or apathy? "The only thing that's going to keep [Russell] from being great is him," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said at the time. "You've got to figure out whether or not this kid wants to be the best quarterback in football... . If I had the first, second, third ... pick in that draft, I would be tearing apart his personal life, trying to figure out whether or not I could trust this kid with $10 million."

"Basically, Al Davis fell in love with [Russell], and if anyone had doubts, he didn't want to hear it," says a former Raiders executive. "You could justify JaMarcus, but it was based mostly on his arm strength. Great, but how many times a game does a guy throw 60 yards on the run?"

A congenitally dysfunctional organization, the Raiders could scarcely have been a worse fit. They surrounded Russell with mediocre talent: Justin Fargas was no Marcus Allen, Ronald Curry no Tim Brown, Lane Kiffin no John Madden. The front office and coaching staff were crippled by in-fighting. The specter of Davis's wrath and eccentricity loomed over each decision. Putting Russell—whose physical prowess was offset by his lack of savvy—in an atmosphere charged with office politics, two time zones and a million cultural miles from his Gulf Coast comfort zone, spelled trouble. "There was no mentoring," laments Russell's aunt, Terry Green. Russell agrees, "Look at [Jets starter] Mark Sanchez and [veteran backup] Mark Brunell. Mark Brunell knows goddam well he ain't going to come in the game. He's there to help. I wish I'd had someone to do that."

During his time in Oakland, Russell says 11 of his family members or friends died, including his uncle Ray Ray Russell, a father figure. "I went through so much no one knew about," he says. "Go to a funeral on Saturday, fly into the game on Sunday. Then I hear, 'He doesn't lead by example.' Really?"

The wounds still clearly raw, Russell can recall, word for word, entire passages of dialogue with Raiders teammates and staff. The coaches who complimented Russell (or blamed his linemen) to his face, and then ripped him behind his back. The teammates who complained of his leadership but didn't accept his offer to come to Mobile, all expenses paid, and work out with him in the off-season. "Things weren't going right, and it felt sometimes like everything fell back on me," he says. "I take some responsibility, but I was one guy... . I may have missed a throw, but I didn't give up 42 points, I didn't miss a block."

He feels particularly betrayed by Tom Cable, who replaced Kiffin as coach five games into the 2008 season. Russell says that at first the two men had daily, meaningful conversations, sometimes crying while talking about lost relatives. "All of a sudden," says Russell, "he flipped the script. I stuck my neck out for him. Didn't complain when he benched me as the starter. Didn't complain when he called the same plays five damn times. Didn't [badmouth] him to other coaches. When the [media] asks me, I say, 'He's a good coach, a good guy.' Then I hear he says I was the worst thing ever happened to the Raiders, if it weren't for him we'd be in the playoffs? ... It just got to where the game wasn't fun for me." (Cable did not respond to requests for comment left with the Seahawks, where he is now the offensive line coach.)

Russell, of course, bears plenty of responsibility himself. As a rookie he held out through training camp before signing a six-year, $61 million deal on Sept. 12, 2007, with $32 million guaranteed. That contract would become Exhibit A when the NFL owners argued for a rookie wage scale this past off-season, one of the key elements in the new collective bargaining agreement. The outsized contract created outsized expectations. "With that kind of money," says Albert Russell, "there were negative judgments before he threw his first pass."

Then, when JaMarcus did throw one, too often it fell to the ground. He completed just 52.1% of his passes, threw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (18) and lost 15 fumbles. Russell's 65.2 career passer rating is anorexic, but it was in keeping with his approval rating among fans. A few wayward passes or sacks or ill-considered decisions and the Black Hole would break out in spontaneous chants: JaMarcus sucks! JaMarcus sucks!

At first the Raiders stuck by Russell. Some did, anyway. In 2007, when Kiffin complained about his rookie quarterback, Davis responded with a letter to the coach that read in part, "He is a great player. Get over it and coach this team on the field." But as Russell committed acts of general knuckleheadedness (he says he was once fined $5,000 by the team for wearing the wrong color socks), missed team meetings and put on pounds, patience eroded. A benching during the 2009 season, designed to galvanize Russell, only seemed to blunt his motivation, and he tumbled down the depth chart. "The Raiders tried to get him to work hard—with all they had at stake, they wanted it to work more than anyone," says Michael Lombardi, an Oakland executive from 1999 to 2007 and now an NFL Network analyst. "JaMarcus was indifferent. And that's the worst thing to be. You didn't get a sense he cared about doing well."

Finally in the spring of 2010, after the team had acquired Campbell from the Redskins, Davis called Russell in and told him the Raiders were releasing him. They had already paid him $36.4 million and would owe him another $3 million. Of the meeting with Davis, Russell recalls, "He wished me the best and apologized that it came out this way. He said, 'I'm getting older, and things are getting out of my hands. I know you're going to go to another team and make me look like an ass.'"

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