The news that Oakland released quarterback JaMarcus Russell on Thursday was certainly not a surprise, but rather a reminder of the difficulty of picking the right player and then nurturing him along in his early NFL years. Russell was clearly a mistake by the Raiders, but a lack of coaching stability and organizational foundation helped doom Russell, too.
Russell, though, is not the story from this perspective. Oh, we saw it coming for sure when Oakland traded for Jason Campbell from the Redskins. The criticism of Russell's work habits and his will to pay the price to win were coming loud and often from the West Coast. The story is more than Russell, though. The story is also the team, and the circumstances -- some that can be controlled and some that cannot be controlled -- that marred Russell's three seasons in Oakland.
He was the first pick in the 2007 NFL draft and Russell will get another chance in the league (although suggestions that the Eagles would be interested strike me as ridiculous) and Russell will have to demonstrate that the considerable money he has made hasn't ruined his desire to succeed. We could segue into a discussion on the disparity of the rookie wage scale and rail about the obvious need to change the system, but that is a rant for another day.
From the Eagles' side of the fence, the release of Russell coincides with the promotion of Kevin Kolb to the starting role here. Kolb was taken in the second round of the 2007 draft, 36th overall, and while the world of Eagles fans went to great lengths to discuss the merit of making the move, the rest of the league didn't take a whole lot of notice.
For three seasons, while Russell went through coaches and burned his expectations in Oakland, Kolb toiled in relative obscurity. He attempted exactly zero passes as a rookie, went 17 of 34 passing in year two and then completed 65 percent of his 96 passes last year. Instead of being thrown to the wolves, Kolb studied behind Donovan McNabb for three seasons. The benefits of that spoon-fed maturation were apparent during the two starts Kolb made in 2009 when he went 1-1 and passed for more than 300 yards in each game, and then again as Kolb bumped up to the starting role when McNabb was traded to Washington in April.
Kolb is ready for the spotlight. Russell ponders his next step in football.
The Eagles have had a very, very good track record recognizing how to handle their young players. They've known who is ready to become a starter -- Brent Celek at tight end and Stewart Bradley at middle linebacker are classic cases -- and they have challenged the right positions at the right time. It is far from a perfect science, but having a feel and a thorough understanding of a young player makes the decision to kick or kiss much more accurate.
So, the careers of Russell and Kolb have crossed once again and the paths are clearly going in opposite directions. Russell made all the money up front and then spiraled downward. The Raiders, we know, are a mess and they have a long way to go before they are again relevant in this league. Russell, for the record, managed the victory over the Eagles in 2009 pretty well. He obviously has talent. Whether he dedicates himself to the game and finds some NFL discipline is a question only time -- and Russell -- will answer.
Kolb, meanwhile, is the starter here operating an offense that stresses creativity, intelligence, precision. He has paid his dues and now has a chance to reap the rewards. The snapshot of that draft from the April of 2007 to this point has changed dramatically. The Eagles traded out of the first round with Dallas and went with Kolb in Round 2. Now, we find out how valuable the trade really was.
Oakland, on the other hand, tries to rebound from one of the worst decisions in NFL history. Russell goes down as an historic bust. Kolb has his chance to build a career, a reputation, and to lift a team that supports him 100 percent to the Promised Land in the NFL.
Drafting the right players is one part of the equation, and it is a very, very important one at that. But just as important in the big picture of the NFL is how a team develops the talent and massages the ego, teaches the game and manages the expectations. It isn't talent alone that enables a player to last in the league, a lesson the Raiders and JaMarcus Russell learned together.