Russell's growth to be measured in opener Print
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Thursday, 04 September 2008 13:43
NFL Headline News

 OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -The goal in JaMarcus Russell's NFL debut against Denver nine months ago was survival.
After a lengthy holdout that forced him to miss the entire preseason, Russell was still learning the playbook for that game last December when he made a two-series stint that gave only a quick tease of what he could offer.
There was an impressive completion on his first pass, a fumbled snap and a few other ups and downs, but nothing to show why Russell was the first overall pick in the 2007 draft.
The player the Broncos will see in the season opener Monday will be very different, the Raiders believe. From the confidence he carries in the huddle to his knowledge of the playbook, Russell is ready for the start of his first full season in the NFL.
``Going through the spring and being there for training camp in the summer, I learned a lot,'' Russell said. ``I'm deep in the playbook now, and a lot different than I was last year. You're going to see a much different guy this year.''
Coach Lane Kiffin said Russell had only a quarter of the game plan at his disposal for his debut, with his responsibilities increasing gradually for his three other appearances last season.
He played briefly again two weeks later against Indianapolis before turning the ball over four times in a lengthy stint against Jacksonville. He finished his rookie season by making his first career start, completing 23 of 31 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown against San Diego.
The improvement continued throughout the offseason.
``He's so much more comfortable,'' Kiffin said. ``That first game we had to have linemen helping in the huddle call the plays. He's come a long way and hopefully it'll pay off.''
Kiffin says he has complete trust in his quarterback and the training wheels that were on for Russell's four games last season have been removed. The questions about the Oakland offense heading into this season are less about Russell and more about the receivers he will throw to and the line that is supposed to protect him.
That's why the offense is likely to revolve around Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden and the running game more than Russell airing it out downfield with his famously strong right arm.
``If we're conservative, it won't be about JaMarcus,'' Kiffin said. ``It'll be about everything around him, all the pieces and protection and comfort in his receivers. ... If we're turning around and handing it off, that's not a reflection of JaMarcus.''
But handing the ball off and running can be sound strategy considering the Raiders' talent in the backfield, And their struggles in the passing game with shaky pass-blocking at tackle with Kwame Harris and Cornell Green, and inconsistent play at receiver with Javon Walker and Ronald Curry.
The Raiders gained the sixth-most yards rushing a year ago, running for 375 in the two games against Denver. If they can't duplicate that kind of success in the opener, it could make for a rough night for Russell.
``If they can't get the running game going, it's going to make a long day for him,'' Denver quarterback Jay Cutler said. ``Probably the coaches are going to keep things basic, try to run the ball and get eight in the box so he gets some one-on-ones outside. He's going to see some blitzes that he's not accustomed to seeing, because teams are going to test him, see if he's on his stuff protection-wise. It's a learning process. There's a learning curve, and you got to go through it to be successful.''
Cutler knows all about it, having been in a similar position to Russell a year ago. Cutler played a little more than his former SEC rival as a rookie, getting time in exhibition games because he signed his contract before training camp, and starting five games at the end of the 2006 season.
But even so, there were growing pains for Cutler in Year 2. He showed the inconsistencies of a young quarterback, following strong games with weak ones, good throws with poor decisions.
``You don't really know what you're seeing,'' he said. ``You're trying to figure out your offense and where your guys are going to be. Sometimes you know what the defense is doing, sometimes you don't. So you're trying to find an open guy. It's difficult.
``As the year goes on you get more comfortable with defenses and seeing things. But those first five or six games, you're trying to get to the game, limit turnovers and do your job.''
Inconsistency from Cutler and the NFL's third-worst run defense were big reasons the Broncos struggled to 7-9 for their first losing season since 1999.
The Raiders also had a losing campaign, finishing 4-12 in their fifth straight season of double-digit losses.
It was a rare down year for the two teams that have often been so dominant in the AFC West. The last time both the Broncos and Raiders had losing seasons was back in the old AFL days, when Oakland went 5-7-2 and Denver finished 2-11-1 in 1964.
But with a new defensive scheme in Denver with coordinator Bob Slowik and more experience for both young quarterbacks, the teams are looking for different results in 2008.
``Last year doesn't really have that much to do with this year,'' Kiffin said. ``We're a different team, they're a different team.''

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