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Leaf passes torch to Russell

JaMarcus mug shot
“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” – Catherine Aird

That statement has never been more true than in the case of JaMarcus Russell. He has indeed become the NFL’s ultimate cautionary tale. But it wasn’t long ago that Ryan Leaf wore the mantle of the biggest bust in NFL history.

The label of biggest bust carries with it the dishonor of having your name regurgitated every year around draft time. It is a popular draft pastime to compare every quarterback with any concerns, whether on the field or off, to the biggest bluechip turd prospect in recent memory.

Up to this season, Ryan Leaf was seemingly alone in the top spot (or bottom, depending on how you look at it) as the steaming example of who to stay well away from. Leaf’s claim to infame began when football experts debated who should be taken, Leaf or Peyton Manning — much in the same way that Sam Bowie will always be associated as the guy the Portland Trailblazers took ahead of Michael Jordan.

The career comparison with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL is plenty of pressure all its own. But Leaf sealed his fate by being a terrible player and a head case of the first order. He has since become quite the criminal as well. In NFL circles, his name has been a four letter word (two, in fact).

Leaf was the standard by which every possible bust quarterback was compared. The problem is that almost every quarterback ever drafted has the potential to be a bust. So the comparison is misguided to be certain.

I have to wonder how it made Leaf feel to be “that guy” for so long. And how good it must feel for him to finally have JaMarcus Russell step in and say, “I got this.” I am guessing the feeling is a lot like Bill Buckner had after the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series.

But there is a big problem with all of this.

You can never simply lump all QB prospects into the same pot based solely on the fact that they are fallible. After all, Ryan Leaf was the black cloud over QB prospects for TEN years. If there were so many guys who “could be the next Ryan Leaf,” what took so long? And Ryan Leaf was not even the number one overall pick.

It took a catastrophic failure as epic as JaMarcus Russell to finally unseat Leaf and release him from his purgatory. If I had to guess, I would say it could be even longer before we see another player who will take Russell’s title belt (heavyweight).

Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett have had a JaWalrus on their backs since before the college football season ended. On Thursday,  ESPN bobble head John Clayton added Washington QB Jake Locker to those who are compared to Russell.

I get it. Summoning the name of JaMarcus Russell causes a gag reflex ripple effect across the football world. The comparison might just be enough to scare teams away from taking one of these players with the top few picks. But all too often this comparison is the draft analyst’s ultimate in taking the easy way out, much like predicting the Raiders will target the speedy criminals. It is just irresponsible to compare every QB pick with some questions about their game to the biggest bust ever at that position.

Russell was a failure of truly unique proportion. Seriously, does anyone REALLY see all the same qualities of Russell in the quarterbacks in this class? Or any other class for that matter? Even Leaf at least attempted to be a good player. After he was finally cut by the Chargers, he signed with the Cowboys. When Russell was finally cut by the Raiders, his first statement was that he was going to “take a break.” No football player who has any ambition would say something like that.

Most players who don’t work out with their drafted team will visit other teams and attempt to continue their careers immediately. Anyone who knows or cares what it takes to be a professional football player would know that you gotta keep at it, keep in shape, and keep your skills sharp. Not Russell, he wanted a nap. He took one Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame and an overrated Brady Quinn, and got exactly what he wanted — a huge payday. After that, his job was done. Russell also gives those who mention him the added bonus of his being chosen by the Raiders.

Cam Newton may be a lot of things (arrogant, abrasive, self-serving), but he isn’t lethargic. Ryan Mallett may have some maturity issues along with a run-in with the law, but I don’t see anyone questioning his drive to a JaMarcus degree. That said, Mallett actually does have some scary Leaf-esque qualities. And Jake Locker? I mean, come on. He just has some mechanical issues. If only Russell’s concerns were so simple.

So let this offseason mark the first of a great many more offseasons to come when the bloated corpse of JaMarcus Russell…’s career is dug up and paraded through every sports show studio, draft war room, blogosphere, and press room. He is the new “(sh)it” guy. Get used to it.

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