Russell is regressing terribly

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

There is no more pressing on-field issue in the AFC West than what is happening in Oakland. Actually, it’s all about what’s not happening in Oakland.

JaMarcus Russell is not getting better. That’s a big problem for the Raiders.

“Really, he’s getting worse,” Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said.

In a pivotal season, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft is struggling mightily. The Raiders hoped and expected Russell would make week-by-week improvement, but the opposite is happening.

In the opener against San Diego, he threw for 208 yards. In Week 2 at Kansas City, he passed for 109 yards and then he bottomed out at 61 yards against Denver as Oakland fell to 1-2. Russell’s passer rating is 39.8 -- the worst in the NFL.

But Russell's numbers aren’t just bad. They’re historically bad. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Russell’s passer rating is the second lowest by a quarterback who played in his team’s first three games of a season this decade (minimum 60 attempts). The only quarterback in the past 10 years who had a lower rating through three games with at least 60 attempts was Ryan Leaf in 2000.

(Ouch. Ryan Leaf. Russell is entering the Leaf zone. The Leaf comparison is certainly not what Oakland was aiming for when this year began.)

The numbers only get worse. Russell has completed just 41.3 percent of his passes. He had 35 incompletions in the first two games of the season.

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Russell's completion percentage through three games is the fourth lowest by a quarterback who played in his team’s first three games of a season in the last 25 seasons (minimum 60 attempts). The only quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts who had lower completion percentages through three games over that span are John Fourcade in 1990, Akili Smith in 2000 and David Carr in 2002.

Leaf. Smith. Carr.

Get the picture? Russell is matching numbers with some of the great quarterback busts of our time. It may be premature to categorize Russell as an official bust. However, he may be wise to shop for property in Bustville. His time is running out.

What’s most bothersome about Russell is that he has failed to make virtually any improvements since he entered the NFL. The same questions remain. When he entered the league, the strong-armed, massive Russell was said to have all the measurables. Before the 2007 draft, Oakland owner Al Davis compared Russell to John Elway.

But Russell was far from a finished product. He needed to work on his accuracy, his footwork, his penchant for locking in on receivers, his vision, his work ethic and his body language.

After 35 NFL games, the same questions remain. In his second full season as a starter, Russell looks as lost as ever.

What’s the answer, though? If Oakland bails on Russell and benches him, it would be an admission the team made a huge mistake and must start over at the most important position on the field.

The team’s current backups, Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye, are not long-term answers. The Raiders could call Jeff Garcia again if they feel like they can make a playoff run without Russell.

Russell probably needs more time to develop. But he is killing any chance Oakland has of being a contender this season. For now, the Raiders are standing by Russell.

“I have to have faith in the guy going out there playing quarterback for us, and I do have that faith," Raiders coach Tom Cable said Monday.

Williamson said he believes Russell is one of the more physically gifted quarterbacks in the NFL.

“I put him right up there with Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco as far as gifts go. I can see why he was the top pick in the draft,” Williamson said. “But he’s atrocious. He really is. He needs a lot of work, and I don’t know if he’ll ever get there. Right now he looks like an incredible bust.”

KC Joyner, the Football Scientist, went out on a limb in the preseason and stumped for Russell. Joyner liked the way Russell finished last season. In the final six games of the 2008 season, Joyner found that Russell had a better passer rating than Matt Ryan and Flacco.

Joyner figured Russell would continue to improve. So, after Russell’s first three games of 2009, is Joyner still a Russell believer?

“No,” Joyner said. “I was on the bandwagon, but he is not doing anything well right now. He has completely regressed.”

That’s the problem with Russell. There are no signs that he’s getting better. All of the signs are pointing in the wrong direction.