JaMarcus Russell: Big Bust or Biggest Bust?

Categories: Sports
JaMarcus Russell No. 1 draft pick.jpg
JaMarcus Russell is now No. 1 on a most unenviable list...
The proper monument to Oakland's just-concluded JaMarcus Russell era would be a hole in the ground. Perhaps it would be a hole large enough to accommodate the $39 million the Oakland Raiders squandered on the historically underachieving quarterback. Perhaps there could be some mention of the seven wins over three years that $39 million bought the Raiders. But these are all details that can be worked out in the months and years to come.

The big question the sports world's chattering classes will now be occupied with is whether Russell -- the No. 1 pick in the National Football League's 2007 draft -- is merely a huge bust or the hugest bust of all-time. That's not a pun regarding Russell's notable girth. Not as far as you know.

The usual reverse-pantheon of Draft Day busts includes luminaries -- or, shall we say, lowminaries -- like Ryan Leaf, Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith, Tony Manadrich, Cade McNown, and Steve Emtman among others.

There isn't an algorithm involved here, as in most bar room discussions. But, for the sake of argument, we'll eliminate non-quarterbacks; in football the quarterback is the focus of all attention like a bride on her wedding day.

Drafting QBs in the first round is a notorious crapshoot. You'd think teams would have worked out some kind of reliable method before handing the keys to the franchise -- and millions of dollars -- to some cocky 22-year-old. But they haven't. A quick glance at the Pro Bowl roster for 2010 reveals that, of the 10 quarterbacks on the depth chart, five weren't first-round draft picks. The one who has had the best career -- Tom Brady -- was a sixth-round pick. Tony Romo wasn't drafted at all.

Leaf.jpg
Ryan Leaf, during his Washington State glory days
In any event, any argument over who was the worst Draft Day blunder for the ages will almost certainly come down to a Ryan Leaf vs. JaMarcus Russell contest. Three years ago the notion that Leaf could be unseated from his throne of ignomy would have been unthinkable. Now, quite honestly, the balance seems to shift in Russell's favor. Leaf -- about as likeable as gangrene during his playing days -- was labeled a bust by the time he was 24, washed out of several backup jobs, was a twenty-something has-been, and is now awaiting sentencing for a bevy of drug charges (to his credit, he seems to have gained new perspectives and is a relatively young 33).

But here's where Russell outshines Leaf -- in a bad way. Leaf was merely a boor who played poorly, couldn't live up to overblown expectations, picked up injuries, and fell into a life of drug addiction. But Russell is a man who has squandered his prodigious talent. Perhaps the polar opposite of workout freak Jerry Rice -- who squeezed every last ounce of ability out of his body -- Russell is fat, lazy, and comes off as indifferent. His team has turned on him to the point where colleagues have been playing up the credentials of obscure, journeyman backup quarterbacks rather than see Russell back behind center. He has purportedly dozed off during team meetings.

Nothing is more heartbreaking than unrealized potential. The NFL is full of stories like that, as you'd expect in a violent league where men's careers are over and done in a year or two. But it's even worse when a man of great talent can't be bothered to try. For any fan who ever wished he was as good at anything as, say, JaMarcus Russell is at tossing a football, this is truly maddening. 

Last month, an older, wiser Ryan Leaf opened up to the Los Angeles Times in an introspective, emotional interview. We couldn't help but notice this line:

"If I'm going to be the biggest bust, I have to own up to it. I used to go to bed at night hoping somebody else like Heath Shuler might magically leapfrog me on those all-time bust lists. It never happened. Why? Because I am No. 1. I can't even think of anyone else in the ballpark that might be close to my combination of disappointment and failed expectations.''

Guess what, Ryan? Today's the day. 

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