Roughly 10 minutes after meeting JaMarcus Russell two years ago, Macy Grace Miles, the pigtailed, loquacious, 3-year-old daughter of LSU coach Les Miles, announced that she was in love with the Tigers quarterback. After that, he was the only football player who mattered. She wore his jersey. She grew hoarse cheering for him. She even attended his mid-March pro day this year at LSU.
There, as more than 100 NFL reps waited for Russell to take the field, Macy Grace insisted on not one but two last-second hugs from her hero. As Russell trotted away to audition to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, the little girl looked up at the nearest adult and quietly sighed, "He's my favorite, you know."
These days, Macy Grace isn't the only one with a schoolgirl crush on him. Since Russell's MVP performance in the Sugar Bowl (a 41-14 romp over Notre Dame and reigning QB "it boy" Brady Quinn), NFL suits have gone gaga over his 6'5'', 258-pound frame, his eye-popping arm strength and his Vince Younglike upside. "I've never seen a kid who can have people hanging on him and still make the throws he makes," says Texans coach Gary Kubiak. "He will go extremely high."
And when he does, it will be largely because of an odd quirk in the NFL's approach to selecting franchise quarterbacks. More than at any other position, QB is where GMs and coaches are willing to gamble high picks on a raw talent like Russell. Once on the clock, they routinely throw logic and reason out the war room window and go with their hearts (and their we-can-coachup-anyone egos). Which is why Russell is in a predraft sweet spot where he can do no wrong—and just as important, where Quinn can do little right.
Before their meeting in New Orleans, Russell was considered a physically gifted project. A former high school All-America from Mobile, he struggled with injuries and inconsistency in his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. After he suffered a shoulder injury during the SEC title game at the end of 2005, Russell wasn't even guaranteed the Tigers' starting spot heading into this season. He needed a career-saving spring to beat out prep phenom Ryan Perrilloux for the starting job.
Quinn, meanwhile, was the quintessential future franchise QB. He stayed in school all four years. He polished his skills in a pro-style offense. He learned from the man who taught Tom Brady.
But at the Sugar Bowl, things went sour for everybody's All-America. Bothered by a sore knee, Quinn looked timid and confused, completing just 15 of 35 passes and getting picked twice. The loss dropped his Notre Dame bowl record to 0—3. Worse, scouts began to doubt him. Suddenly, Quinn's experience became a liability, as future employers now had a huge body of work to nitpick. They saw accuracy issues; worried that he couldn't pull out big games and that he threw out of the shotgun too much; asked if he looked like Joey Harrington under pressure; wondered if he was just a product of the Charlie Weis system.
Quinn's drop in status is almost identical to that of Matt Leinart, who went No. 10 overall to the Cardinals a year ago. How does this happen? "Everybody's just got way too much time on their hands," says Norm Chow, the Titans offensive coordinator and Leinart's coordinator in college.
It didn't help that while Quinn struggled in the Sugar Bowl, Russell played lights out, completing 21 of 34 passes for a career-best 332 yards and 2 TDs while running for another score. "He played the game of his life in the biggest game of his career against the guy everyone was thinking of as the No. 1 pick in the draft," says Ray Ray Russell, JaMarcus' uncle. "It was the perfect moment."
And when you're a potential No. 1 pick, a public performance like that trumps cold, hard facts. According to the gurus at Footballoutsiders.com, the leading indicator of NFL success for QBs taken in the first two rounds is college starts: The more a passer has, the better he'll do in the pros. Quinn had 46, a number roughly equivalent to those of Philip Rivers (51), Donovan McNabb (49) and Carson Palmer (45). And Russell? He started just 29 games. Yet by leaving school early, Russell—whose start numbers are comparable to those of Rex Grossman (31), Joey Harrington (28), Jim Druckenmiller (24) and Akili Smith (19)—has kept the scouts from piling up the dossier needed to overanalyze him. He also benefits from a backlash against the old-time NFL evaluators who badmouthed Young last year, only to watch him become an NFL phenom. Those scouts are far less inclined to rip Russell, leaving a power vacuum in most war rooms this spring that favors the "potential" believers over the "pedigree" crowd.
It's a classic market for impulse buying, and the urge to splurge on Russell's cannon arm, athleticism and undeniable presence seems to be growing by the minute. He showed up at the combine 10 pounds overweight, yet all anyone could talk about were his nearly 10-inch hands. Meanwhile, Quinn bench-pressed 225 pounds an amazing 24 times and later completed 58 of 63 passes at his campus workout. The scouts barely looked up from their clipboards.
At his pro day, Russell showed off his arm and compact throwing motion, along with his remarkable footwork and body control while on the move. In the pocket, though, he struggled while setting up on his short drops and showed poor anticipation with targets coming out of breaks. On one series of 12-yard outs, where he had to throw across his body to the sideline—a crucial conversion throw in the NFL that requires laserlike accuracy—he missed badly on nearly half of his attempts. "I know it's the scout's job to look everywhere and find things that are wrong," says Russell, who has "The Chosen One" tattooed on his left arm. "But I'm pretty sure there's someone over the scout's head who will find all the right things I do."
He's right. After his workout, smitten coaches didn't seem worried about his failings. "Have you seen his gosh darn hands?" said Vikings coach Brad Childress. "They're huge. It's like the kid has an extra knuckle. Sure, there are lots of things I'd like to know about him. But physically, he's off the charts. It's exciting. You just simply can't deny his physical gifts. It all starts with that."
And so will the draft.