As Russell's debut nears, his holdout might prove a blessing

JaMarcus Russell's (2) time as a spectator is nearing its end. The former LSU QB and first overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft is expected to make his Raiders debut soon, perhaps Sunday against Denver. Nick Laham/Getty Images

It seems the lengthy holdout that cost Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell an entire training camp just might be a blessing.

It has given him a chance to sit back and learn. It has given the Raiders a reason to take their time in acclimating him to life in the NFL. More than anything, it has limited the pressure on a high-profile rookie who will encounter plenty of scrutiny once he finally steps under center.

It really is impossible to argue against the Raiders' rationale in bringing Russell along slowly. Coach Lane Kiffin has maintained that Russell still isn't ready to enter a game, although it has been reported the former LSU star might get time Sunday at home against the Denver Broncos.

Whenever Russell does play, we safely can assume that he'll endure the same struggles every new signal-caller faces.

He'll deal with mental errors, the breakneck pace of the pro game and the desire to prove why he was the first overall selection in this year's draft. What Russell won't have to worry about, however, is a substantial lack of preparation.

As talented as Russell is, he has needed time to grow into being an NFL quarterback. After all, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer benefited from sitting in his rookie season after he was the top pick in the 2003 draft. That circumstance also worked for unheralded quarterbacks who later developed into stars, including New England's Tom Brady and Dallas' Tony Romo.

This is why it's good to hear Russell maintaining a positive perspective on staying patient.

"The waiting has been fine," he said in a recent interview. "I've been watching Daunte [Culpepper] and Josh [McCown] play, and I've been learning a lot from them. I don't know when I'll get a chance to play, but I've just been trying to get ready for it."

That opportunity might be nearing, based on the strides Russell has been making.

After spending most of the year running Oakland's scout team, Russell started taking snaps with the first-string offense in practices a couple of weeks ago. Kiffin also said he had been thinking more about promoting Russell to the second string in games. In past weeks, he has deactivated Russell or made the rookie the team's third quarterback. It's also apparent that Russell has been making the most of his downtime.

Because he missed so much practice this summer, Russell has used his off days (which fall on Tuesdays) and pregame workouts as opportunities to study the offense and hone his mechanics. Those 45-minute sessions before games also allow Russell to run through the entire game plan with quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. This might sound like routine stuff, but it's essential to Russell's growth. The coaches don't have enough time to teach Russell during the season, so he has to get what he can when he can.

Every time I learn something new, there's something else that I have to pick up.

--JaMarcus Russell

Russell's contract holdout dragged on for more than six weeks before -- shortly after the Raiders' season opener Sept. 9 -- he agreed to an NFL-rookie-record $68 million deal.

Those weeks out of camp have been costly in terms of his playbook education.
Russell admitted that the toughest part of his job this season has been playing catch-up -- "Every time I learn something new, there's something else that I have to pick up," he says -- but he has impressed teammates with his willingness to work overtime.

Raiders offensive tackle Barry Sims added that Russell had been running more after practices to keep his weight down. Reports had 6-foot, 6-inch Russell hovering in the 270-pound range, but he said he currently weighs 259 pounds.

"JaMarcus really has done a great job of following through on what he has to do," said Greg Knapp, Oakland's offensive coordinator. "People forget that he's only 22 years old. He's supposed to be a senior in college right now, so this really is a good thing for him. He's getting a solid foundation, and he'll be able to build on that."

It also doesn't hurt to have Culpepper around.

If Russell wants to know what it's like to sit this long as a highly drafted rookie, all he has to do is ask Culpepper, who spent his first year with the Minnesota Vikings on the sideline. Russell also can learn from the roller-coaster experiences Culpepper has endured in a nine-year career that has included three Pro Bowl appearances, a devastating knee injury, and messy divorces with the Vikings and the Miami Dolphins.

The bottom line here: Russell is realizing that talent doesn't guarantee you anything at this level.

Culpepper constantly reminds Russell of how quickly his time will come, and Russell is starting to understand that. In fact, he has opened up more around his teammates in recent weeks, which is an indication of his growing comfort level.

"You can see he's becoming more vocal now," Raiders center Jeremy Newberry said.

"When he first got here, he was real quiet. Now, he's giving guys high fives as they run on the field before the games and he just seems to be more involved. It's a tough situation when you miss all of training camp, but he's doing a great job of getting himself up to speed."

As good as Russell has looked while waiting -- and the Oakland defenders say his arm strength has blown them away in scout team drills -- the only true test of his progress will come in a real game.

That's when he'll have to prove he can lead a team that has been downright awful. The Raiders, 3-8 entering the game against the Broncos, haven't won more than five games in a season since reaching Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 campaign. On Nov. 25 in Kansas City, the Raiders snapped a 17-game losing streak to AFC West opponents with a victory.

Being a savior for that team is the kind of task people really shouldn't be thrown into without much thought.

Of course, we'll never really know how the Raiders would have handled Russell if he had been around for training camp.

Maybe they would have let McCown, who has battled injuries, play for most of the season. Maybe Culpepper, who signed late in the summer, wouldn't even be on the team. But one thing that is certain is that Russell has benefited from the way a controversial start to his career played out.

Even if he doesn't see all the rewards at this moment, he will when he finally has to produce.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.