If there’s a reason to root for JaMarcus Russell as he works out for the Bears on Friday, or at any other time the No. 1 draft pick of 2007 attempts to move his comeback forward, the Tale of the Blank DVD would appear to be the leader.
Rich Eisen retold the story Thursday on an NFL.com podcast, attributing the information to Warren Sapp, who spent his final season in the NFL with the Raiders just as Russell began his career in Oakland. According to Eisen, Sapp said a Raiders coach had given the young Russell a DVD loaded with plays and ideas to take home overnight and critique. The following day, the story goes, Russell brought the DVD back and said he was on board with everything he’d watched.
Here’s the punchline of the story: The DVD was blank.
Taken at face value, the anecdote seems to indict Russell’s work ethic pretty thoroughly (though his work on the field ultimately convicted him and caused him to be cut). Viewed in context, it speaks to the Raiders’ petty infighting and propensity for self-sabotage. The story also rings a little too familiar.
Randall Cunningham faced a similar accusation, adjusted for his era’s technological limitations. Sid Gillman, hired as a quarterback consultant for the Eagles early in Cunningham’s career, reportedly slipped a piece of paper in a reel of film he asked Cunningham to study. When the quarterback returned the film, the story goes, the paper remained lodged in place.
Clearly, something was plagiarized here, either the idea of busting a young player on indolence charges or the account of the Russell bust, fiction or non. In either case, if the coaches ran sting operations and then squealed, they weren’t exactly nurturing their protégés.
Neither tale has included the obvious follow-up: Did the coaches confront the player and, if so, to what effect? The whole point seems to be the smearing of a player’s reputation and the exoneration of coaching staffs that struggled to get the most out of young – and not coincidentally, African-American — quarterbacks.
Russell entered Oakland in its “Game of Thrones Lite’’ phase. Al Davis had decreed Russell the crown prince, while coach Lane Kiffin connived to fill the throne with understudy peasants like Josh McCown, at least until he could find an heir who suited his tastes.
Davis gave away the palace intrigue via overhead projector in 2008, displaying the note that dispatched Kiffin, telling him: “I do realize that you did not want us to draft JaMarcus Russell. He’s a great player. Get over it, and coach this team on the field.’’
Right or wrong on Russell, Kiffin devoted more energy to rebelling against Davis about the young quarterback than he did to following a coach’s fundamental mandate: putting players in a position to succeed. His successor, Tom Cable, passive-aggressively pursued the same agenda. Russell ate and underperformed his way out of the NFL, but he also got caught up in a melodrama that would have ruined many young quarterbacks.
Likewise, Cunningham was never properly coached in Philadelphia over an extended period of time. Buddy Ryan, in particular, thought defenses controlled games and quarterbacks broke them down on single plays, not with a smart, carefully orchestrated attack. He expected the explosive Cunningham to detonate defenses, not manage the offense.
But Cunningham’s flawed 11-year career with the Eagles was a spectacular success compared with Russell’s three seasons in Oakland. It seems inconceivable that, even with reported 50-pound weight loss and a Jeff Garcia-orchestrated makeover, he could achieve the kind of vindication Cunningham found with the Vikings in 1998. It’s certainly not clear that Russell deserves another chance more than Trent Edwards or Jordan Palmer, who are also auditioning to be placed on Chicago’s call-in-an-emergency list.
But if he does succeed, that story of the blank DVD will take on a more appropriate meaning, as a reflection of how little his Oakland coaches had to offer.