JaMarcus Russell spoke to the media in Oakland this past week for the first time since losing his job as the Raiders' starting quarterback. He said the demotion was undeserved. He called himself the team's quarterback of the future. As for the Raiders' quarterback of the present, Russell merely said that the team is "making plays for him."
The "him" is Bruce Gradkowski, the University of Toledo product who has helped orchestrate recent wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. We might suggest there may be good reasons the Raiders' supporting cast is making plays for Gradkowski that they were not making for Russell.
The former Rocket plays with an infectious passion that makes him a natural leader. Many Raiders said exactly that in the aftermath of Gradkowski's three-touchdown performance in the fourth quarter against the Steelers last weekend. Few have praised Russell's leadership or work ethic since he left LSU for the pro ranks.
Tom Cable, the Oakland coach who elevated Gradkowski to the starting role a month ago, walked out of the locker room in Pittsburgh thinking, "Wow, these guys are really behind him, talking about his presence and what he's doing in the huddle."
True story: Gradkowski stepped into the huddle late in the game against the Steelers and saw left tackle Mario Henderson staring off into the distance at the video board.
"Bruce was like, 'Stop [bleep] looking at that thing and get your mind right,'" Henderson told reporters later. "I looked at him at first like, 'You talking to me?' Then I was like, you know what, I like that. I like that, man. He demands attention. That's what you need as a quarterback in the league."
Reaction like that certainly does not surprise Tom Amstutz, who was Gradkowski's head coach at Toledo.
"Leadership has always been Bruce's strongest characteristic," Amstutz said. "It's what I call football spirit. He's excited about being out there and he expects something good to happen. Before long, everyone around him expects the same thing."
Good things have happened so far. Gradkowski is 2-1 as the Raiders' starter and will go for another win at home this afternoon against the Washington Redskins.
His three touchdown passes in one quarter against Pittsburgh contrasts with the two touchdowns, against nine interceptions, Russell produced in nine games as Oakland's starter this season.
So, yes, Gradkowski has made a difference for the Raiders, his third pro team since being drafted by Tampa Bay in the spring of 2006. But he has also created a problem for team owner Al Davis. And it becomes a bigger problem with every victory.
Davis did not stand in Cable's way when the coach decided to bench Russell and hand Gradkowski the reins for, supposedly, the remainder of this season. But the iconic, if not rather bizarre, Raiders' owner might have difficulty envisioning Gradkowski as his long-term starter.
Russell, still just 24 years old, signed a six-year deal worth up to $68 million when he ended his rookie holdout in September, 2007. It included $31.5 million in guaranteed money.
The Raiders haven't received much bang for all those bucks. Russell has thrown for 17touchdowns and 21 interceptions and has a paltry 65.5 passer rating in 28 career appearances.
Still, Russell would reportedly count $9.45 million towards the salary cap next season. He said last week he would not be interested in restructuring the deal to create cap space.
Gradkowski, who currently earns $535,000, will be a restricted free agent when this season ends and if the Raiders wanted to re-sign him they would likely have to offer a far more lucrative contract that reflected his role as a starter.
Davis, probably too stubborn to declare the '07 draft a disaster and Russell a washout, would likely prefer to go to camp next summer with the strong-armed Russell as the designated starter, hoping that he emerges as a talent worthy of his compensation.
It is unlikely Davis, who is portrayed as cash-strapped, would be able to pay a second quarterback starter-like money.
Today's game against the Redskins will be the sixth straight Oakland home game to be blacked out on local TV. The Raiders have averaged about 42,000 fans in the previous five games in a stadium that seats 63,000. Also ominous is the NFL owners' plan to discontinue revenue sharing next season.
Dollars aside, it also is not certain whether Cable, who one would presume is in Gradkowski's corner, will return as head coach in 2010. Regardless, Davis always has and always will make the calls on big personnel decisions.
Where would that leave Gradkowski?
"I believe I'm a starting quarterback in the NFL," he said last week.
He enters today's game with a 55 percent completion rate for 854 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. His passer rating of 80.2 is better than 11 other current starters in the league.
Some of those 11 teams may be looking for options at quarterback next season, meaning that Gradkowski is in a position where he is impressing teams other than just the Raiders during this stretch run.
"I think he's proving he can be a starter," Amstutz, the ex-UT coach, said. "With the experience he's gaining now, at the very minimum he's a guy you would want as your backup quarterback. He has proved he can go in and execute a game plan and give your team a chance to win.
"Whether it's in Oakland or somewhere else, Bruce is giving himself a longer life in the NFL and, as a player, that's all you can try to do when you get the opportunity."
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