By Kerry J. Byrne
President of the JaMarcus Russell fan club
Russell, of course, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Naturally, no player enters the NFL with higher expectations than the very first draft pick. And certainly, no position in the NFL comes with higher expectations than quarterback. They're a pair of expectations, as you'll soon see, that few in very recent history have been able to fulfill.
But few, if any, have failed more spectacularly than Russell – at least if his performance through his first three NFL seasons is any indication.
If you're looking for a single Cold, Hard Football Fact to sum up his futility leading an NFL offense, consider the number 18. That's the number of touchdown passes that Russell has thrown in his three NFL seasons. Eighteen.
If it seems like meager production, especially for a player in whom so much hope and expectation had been invested, it is. In fact, no overall No. 1 QB in modern NFL history has produced so few scoring strikes after three years in the NFL.
In the wake of Oakland's decision to cut Russell late last week, we looked at the production of every quarterback taken with the overall No. 1 pick in the Super Bowl Era. The numbers for Russell are extraordinarily poor, especially considering that, league-wide it has never been easier to pass the ball than it is here in the modern NFL.
A few Cold, Hard Football Facts leap screaming off the stat sheet, like a Viking invader who leaps screaming from his longship upon some unsuspecting Norman town
The Raiders were right to cut their ties: Russell was historically inept
Russell was utterly inept in his three NFL seasons. The 18 TD passes is last among all 16 No. 1 picks. The 4,083 passing yards is next to last among all 16 No. 1 picks (Bartkowski). The 6.0 YPA is next to last among all 16 No. 1 picks (Smith).
The 52.1 completion percentage is next to last among those quarterbacks selected No. 1 in the Live Ball Era (since 1978). Only Testaverde was less accurate. The attempts and completions are both next to last among those quarterbacks selected No. 1 in the Live Ball Era (Vick).
Russell's 65.2 passer rating is next to last among those quarterbacks selected No. 1 in the Live Ball Era. Only Testaverde was less efficient passing the ball in his first three seasons.
(The differences between the Dead Ball Era and Live Ball Era are evident when you compare the completion percentages and ratings of the earlier quarterbacks vs. the later quarterbacks.)
Add it all up and it spells Major League Bust for Russell and Major League Disappointment for Raiders fans.
There are issues across the Bay, too
There must be something in the drinking water around San Francisco Bay. Russell is not the only major bust on the list.
In fact, there's a good argument to be made that Alex Smith has been a bigger bust in the NFL than Russell – or at least he was through his first three NFL seasons.
Smith was dead last among all 16 No. 1 picks on our list, with a three-season average of 5.85 YPA. He's also dead last in touchdown percentage (2.4%). Smith threw just 19 TD passes in his first three seasons – just one more than Russell's dead-last number. But it took Smith 120 more attempts to get that single extra touchdown.
The difference is that the Raiders were smart enough too cut their ties after three seasons. The 49ers have let Smith linger and are now committed to one seeming bust in Smith and a bona fide bust in David Carr, the overall No. 1 in 2002. That's hardly a source of confidence for 49ers fans weaned on the Hall of Fame mother's milk of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Smith, for his part, spent 2008, his fourth NFL season, on injured reserve. But he displayed signs of adequacy in 2009: he tossed 18 TDs in 10 games – nearly doubling the total of his first three seasons – and posted an 81.5 passer rating. That was just shy of the league average in 2009.
NFL teams are really sucking it in the draft
In the wake of the 2010 draft, a reader got us to look at how poor NFL teams have become
at identifying great players with the very first pick in the draft.
Years ago, there was a very high likelihood that teams would find a Pro Bowler or even a Hall of Famer with the very first pick. In recent years, though, teams have been drafting very poorly. The busts are outweighing the great players
. This fact is all the more interesting when you consider that teams today spend more time, energy, money and research than ever investigating players. Yet their ability to harvest great players with the first pick has declined noticeably.
This is especially evident here on our list of No. 1 quarterbacks.
From Terry Bradshaw, the first quarterback taken No. 1 overall in the Super Bowl Era, through Peyton Manning, the ninth, NFL teams were pretty good at finding quarterbacks who could play at a high level in the NFL.
Bradshaw is a Hall of Famer who won four Super Bowls. Plunkett, after a rocky start, won two Super Bowls. Bartkowski struggled out of the gate, but turned into the best quarterback in the otherwise indistinct history of the Falcons. Elway is a Hall of Famer. Testaverde gave us 21 long NFL seasons. Aikman is a Hall of Famer. Bledsoe was a serviceable and sometimes prolific NFL quarterback with three franchises and won a conference title. And, of course, Peyton Manning is destined to break every record in the book and is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
George was the only bust among the nine quarterbacks taken No. 1 from 1970 to 1998.
But it all started to fall apart with Tim Couch in 1999. He was a bona fide bust. Michael Vick's career was been, at best, rocky and filled with controversy. Carr is a bust. Carson Palmer, though productive, has had incredible injury problems and today is struggling to regain his early form. Eli Manning had his one incredible moment in the sun, but is otherwise a pedestrian NFL passer. Smith is fighting to overcome the bust label. And then there's Russell.
Like we said last month
, NFL teams invest more in the draft than ever, yet the draft more poorly than ever. Our theory? Teams are clearly considering the wrong variables (like the combine nonsense) and avoiding the old basics: have we seen evidence that the guy can play football?
Russell still could have a future ahead
The Raiders were smart to realize that Russell just couldn't get it done at this level. He has been historically inept. It's a tough admission to make for a team that puts so much stock in a single player, as NFL teams do when they take a quarterback with the overall No. 1 pick.
But Russell could still have a career in front of him.
Bradshaw had short-timer written all over him after two NFL seasons. His 7.8 interception percentage in his first two years was dreadful, even for the pick-prone Dead Ball Era in which he played. But the Steelers started to win in that third year (11-3 in 1972) and won a playoff game for the first time in franchise history that season. You know the rest of the story.
Plunkett looked good through three years but fell apart in his fourth and fifth seasons with New England. He was cast off to the ash heap of history, only to remerge with the Raiders late in his career (when the Raiders revived careers, not ruined them), where he played brilliantly in his two Super Bowl victories.
Testaverde, meanwhile, was as bad as they get in the Live Ball Era. His 59.1 passer rating through three seasons was worse even than that of Plunkett, who began his career in the depths of the Dead Ball Era. Testaverde was playing in the in the Marino-led explosion of passing stats. Yet he couldn't even complete half his passes – unbelievably inaccurate by the standards of the late 1980s.
And, finally, Testaverde couldn't keep the ball out of the hands of the opposition: 63 picks in 33 games in his first three seasons, including an AFL-esque 35 in his second year, the most by any player in NFL history (George Blanda threw 42 with the Oilers in the AFL in 1962). Testaverde today is No. 4 on the all-time INT list (267), behind only BrettFavre (317), Blanda (277) and AFL gunslinger John Hadl (268).
But Testaverde somehow bumbled his way through a 21-year NFL career with seven teams. He even went 12-1 with the Jets in 1998 and led the team to the AFC title game. Interceptions continued to haunt him (he led the league four times). But today, to his credit, Testaverde is No. 8 on the career touchdown list (275) and No. 7 on the career passing yards list (46,233).
They're fairly impressive accomplishments for a guy who was a capital B-U-S-T bust after three NFL seasons. In fact, Testaverde was even worse than Russell in most indicators. And it's a sign that Russell could – repeat, could – get his career together with a little soul-searching on his part and the faith of a desperate GM or coach.
As the 49ers have shown, desperate teams do desperate things to find a quarterback.