PITTSBURGH - Since their Super Bowl appearance in 2002, the Oakland Raiders have had 10 different starting quarterbacks, three of whom were No. 1 draft choices from another team - Kerry Collins, Jeff George, and Daunte Culpepper - and another who was their top overall pick in the draft, JaMarcus Russell.
But, after just 25 starts with the Raiders, Russell has fallen like a redwood in a forest, chopped to the ground by a rash of turnovers, incompletions, and bad reads.
Less than three seasons after the Raiders selected him ahead of Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft, he has been benched and replaced by Bruce Gradkowski, a grad from Pittsburgh's Seton-LaSalle High School who might be a little underwhelmed about another homecoming at Heinz Field.
"That's one spot that you need to have some continuity," said Raiders coach Tom Cable. "Certainly it takes a special guy to be the guy and do it for more than a short period of time."
Nobody is ready to anoint Gradkowski as the next Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett, or even Rich Gannon - quarterbacks who have led the Raiders to the Super Bowl. But he is 1-1 as the Raiders quarterback heading into today's game against the Steelers, and the victory was against the Cincinnati Bengals, who have a two-game lead in the AFC North division.
"I think it is tough to have a different quarterback, year in and year out," Gradkowski said. "You see the teams that are successful in the NFL, they have a solid, stable quarterback. That is what we need to do here in Oakland."
Gradkowski is directing a Raiders offense that has the most anemic passing attack in the National Football League. They have only 14 passes of 20 yards or longer, fewest in the league, and an NFL-worst five touchdown passes.
They drafted wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in the first round to improve their deep passing game, but he has just nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown in 11 starts.
"Let's see how it goes," Cable said of Gradkowski, who is with his third team in four NFL seasons. "I think he's doing very well. In this business, you kind of throw yourself into this job, you keep it, or you throw yourself out of it."
Do not blame Gradkowski if he is not exactly brimming with confidence against the Steelers. In two previous starts at Heinz Field - in 2006 with Tampa Bay and last season with Cleveland - he has combined for five interceptions, no touchdowns, and a passer rating of 20.2. In the 2008 season finale with the Browns, he completed five of 16 passes for 18 yards, three interceptions, and a 1.0 passer rating.
Despite having the league's top defense, the Steelers have been susceptible to big plays lately. They have given up six passes of 40 yards or more in the last three games.
One of the culprits has been safety Ryan Clark, who was late reacting to a 54-yard completion to Baltimore's Mark Clayton last week and got beat on a double move on Chris Chambers' 47-yard catch in Kansas City. Both plays led to touchdowns.
"It's disappointing for me," Clark said. "If you look at last year as opposed to the year before, a lot of deep throws made, I was able to stop or help on. But a lot of that goes to communication and being comfortable with a steady group of guys and, without Troy [Polamalu], it's been difficult. There hasn't been as much of that. I take it as my fault."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.