The clock might be ticking on the job security of Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin, but let's not forget about one important thing that seems to be getting lost in the bad blood between him and owner Al Davis: the development of second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
It's one thing for Davis to tire of another head coach, a seemingly annual occurrence. But this is the same owner who used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft on a quarterback who eventually received $30 million in guaranteed money. If Davis wants to keep bouncing coaches out of Oakland, he needs to be aware of the impact that revolving door could have on his investment.
What makes Russell's situation so interesting is that he is the first quarterback Davis has taken in the first round since the Raiders selected Todd Marinovich in the 1991 draft. It might be easier for Russell to handle becoming the leader of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise if he were a veteran who had seen how a different, more stable organization operates. But he's just another young signal-caller -- one who wasn't the most polished player when he left LSU -- trying to find his way in the league. And when you add all the challenges that come with being a Raider, you wonder about anybody in his position having the wherewithal to succeed.
So far, it's hard to know how good Russell can be. It's obvious that Kiffin and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp are still handling him with kid gloves -- Russell has thrown only 36 passes in his past two games for an offense that is relying heavily on the run -- but they like the fact that he's limiting his mistakes. Russell hasn't tossed an interception in 62 pass attempts, and he's only been sacked four times.
"He's got all the physical skills," said San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner in a recent conference call with Bay Area media. "And he does look like he's making the progress that you'd want a guy to make."
While it's reassuring that Russell is doing the little things young quarterbacks must do to develop confidence, can he grow into a quarterback who can be trusted to win games? Remember, it's not like he's working in a sound environment. Davis and Kiffin have been at odds since the end of last season, and it's only a matter of time before the coach gets his walking papers. Twice in the last two weeks we've heard reports that Davis was all but ready to throw Kiffin out of the facility.
Those kinds of issues make it hard to think Russell is going to have an easy time evolving with the Raiders. Aside from dealing with a losing environment -- the Raiders are 1-2 this season, and they've had five straight years of double-digit losses -- he's also going to have to get used to a new offense once Kiffin is bounced. The tough part of that deal is that Russell already wasted his first season in the NFL by missing most of training camp because of a contract holdout and having to play catch-up with Knapp's offense last season. As Kiffin has pointed out, Russell is basically still a rookie quarterback at this stage, one with just four career starts.
So far Russell has been willing to play the good soldier and not get caught up in the chaos that surrounds him. When asked about Kiffin's situation a couple weeks ago, he said, "It's something you have to block out." But there's no question that it's not so easy to achieve that task. Even Russell's close friends wonder how he's coping.
"The one thing he has said to me is that it can be hard when the quarterback is under [scrutiny] and the head coach is under [scrutiny]," said Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, one of Russell's closest friends and a former teammate at LSU.
"It makes it harder for him to do his job, because he has to stay on top of everybody else. He told me he just has to be himself and not worry about everything else around him. But he has said it can be rough."
From all indications, Russell is making an attempt to avoid the distractions that come with his job. But he's still going to have to face the reality of a new coaching staff with new expectations, and the same possibility that Davis will drop them after a year or two. And that is no way for a young quarterback to grow up in the NFL. Even if Russell has the ability to become a star, he could spend the next two to three years starting over time and again.
You also can't overlook how the malaise that constantly surrounds this team will influence him. Keep in mind that recently retired defensive tackle Warren Sapp was so disenchanted with the Raiders' locker room that he told his friend, Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, that there weren't enough players on Oakland's roster who had a passion for playing football.
The Raiders also have had some other first-round picks -- specifically some Pro Bowl-level players -- who eventually let that environment infect their work ethics and their attitudes. On this front, names like Darrell Russell, Charles Woodson and Chester McGlockton come to mind.
So as Davis and Kiffin seem headed for a possible divorce, it's important to remember the collateral damage that could be done to Russell's career.
Sure, Russell might not be aware of the trouble he's facing right now. But all we really know about the Raiders at the moment are two things: Davis won't change to help his lousy franchise, and Kiffin soon will be looking for work. What remains very much in question is how stable a quarterback JaMarcus Russell can be in an environment that is anything but that.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.