The best thing to ever happen to Jamarcus Russell was being cut by the Raiders.
After all, "The Silver and Black" have become the recent standard bearer in the NFL of ineptitude. No matter. Since making the Super Bowl in 2002, Oakland has just 29 wins, stacked up against 83 losses. There is not a worse team in the NFL during that stretch. It wasn't just Russell's fault - of the three quarterbacks to take the majority of snaps for the "Silver & Black" last season, not one had a quarterback rating that would be top 20 in the league. Throw in a couple coaching changes and you have a recipe for disaster for a young quarterback.
Through the eyes of Tom Martinez, Russell is "now going to make someone happy at a very good price." Martinez is the quarterback guru who trained Russell before the NFL Draft and can boast several signal callers in the league who see him in the off-season to tweak their technique. Perhaps best known for having personally mentored and trained Tom Brady since his teen years, the California-based Martinez has no qualms about saying exactly how he feels about Russell.
"There wasn't a quarterback in this [draft], the one past, who is better than Jamarcus," Martinez said. "And that includes [Sam] Bradford."
Since being taken with the top pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, it has been a long, hard go for Russell whose arrival in Oakland coincided with the worst stretch of results in franchise history. Russell has never had a season where he had more touchdowns than interceptions and last year finished with the lowest quarterback rating of any starter in the league. The team has never had more wins than losses since Russell arrived.
But all that doesn't matter much to Martinez, who said that Russell is among the most talented quarterbacks he has ever had the chance to work with.
It might be easy to chalk it up to Martinez merely defending a client and his reputation, but make no mistakes about it, he believes in the former number one pick. Martinez called Russell the scapegoat for an Oakland team he said is "honestly, not that good right now." According to his mentor, this is a problem that goes far beyond Russell or any quarterback, it is endemic of the Raiders personnel on offense.
"When you see that their tight end is leading the team in receptions, you know you have a problem with the receivers," Martinez said. "Their wide receivers haven't been able to separate and catch many balls since Fred Bilitnikoff played for them [30 years ago]."
Harsh words maybe, but perhaps not too far from the truth.
Outside of tight end Zak Miller who hauled in 66 passes last season, not one Raider was in the top 100 in the league in receptions. Of all of Oakland's wide receivers, it was Louis Murphy who led the team with 34 receptions. How low is that number? Consider that across the NFL, 23 running backs and the same number of tight ends had more receptions than Murphy, an astonishing stat. Wide receivers are supposed to make catches, and Russell simply put doesn't have anything resembling a target at his disposal. Consider that his top pass catching wide receiver was averaging little more than two catches a game and you see where the issue might really lie.
The fact that Murphy, a rookie last year taken in the fourth round, would lead the team in passes caught is in itself a telling fact as to the quality of the targets around Russell while in Oakland. While Murphy played very well and impressed, it is rarely a good sign when a mid-round selection leads your team in receptions as a rookie. Second on the team in catches was Chaz Schilens, a second-year receiver who averaged less than a catch a game in 2008 and was thrust into a more prominent role last year. Then there is Johnnie Lee Higgins, a third year player last year whose five starts in 2009 was a career high; Higgins was third on the team in catches with just five starts under his belt.
Factor in an offensive line that conceded the third most sacks in the league at over three a game and a rushing effort that was bottom third statistically and there isn't exactly an atmosphere conducive for success brewing in Oakland.
"Jamarcus wasn't put in a situation where he could succeed and do well," a quarterback coach in the league, who spoke on conditions of anonymity because he can't talk to the media, said. "There was no line to protect him and his receivers weren't getting open. It reminds me a lot of what the 49'ers did with Alex Smith."
Martinez doesn't think that Russell is washed up by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he says without hesitation that the quarterback is still young and maturing. Despite the success of Martinez's protégé Tom Brady, who made an almost instant impact in the league, Martinez feels that Russell is a player who still can produce in the right environment. Players like the 49'ers Alex Smith, who like Russell was taken with the first pick in the draft, needed five years until they began to blossom.
"In my opinion, a quarterback doesn't really begin to come into his own until he is 26," Martinez said. "A lot needs to happen for a quarterback to be able to play on a NFL field and lead his team."
Russell, after all, turns 25 during this pre-season and still has plenty of time to resurrect his career. This would in fact be Russell's fourth season in the league if some team steps up and offers him a contract. It isn't like his career is exactly shot. In fact, the chance to move out of the sink hole that is Oakland and move to a team that actually has, you know, receivers and an offensive line, might just do wonders for a career that hasn't yet taken shape.
For his part, Martinez remains balanced about the prognosis on Russell. He concedes that the quarterback has a lot of work to do, especially in terms of conditioning and fitness. Since Martinez trained and mentored him into top pick status, no one has consistently worked with Russell on his techniques and mechanics. Once rumored to be closing in on 300 pounds, an obscene number for a quarterback, Russell must now go about the business of quieting critics and resurrect a career that never really took off.
"Those panning him aren't being fair to him," Martinez said. "He was in a situation that no one could do well in. He's going to prove a lot of people wrong."
Kristian R. Dyer covers the NFL for FoxSports.com and Scout.com. He can be reached for questions, comments and crude remarks at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012