In the grand design of quarterback development, there has always been something about year three. It has long been echoed by offensive minds from the Bill Walsh coaching tree, particularly the branch belonging to Mike Holmgren. Whether it has been Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Brad Childress or many others, at some point they have all professed that year three often becomes the true divide between good NFL quarterbacks and those who will struggle.
Maybe that's what Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable had in mind when he met with reporters last week at the league's annual owners meetings. Clearly, he wasn't without an agenda. Particularly when it came to quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who is entering his third season and is at a pivotal point in his career. Indeed, Cable wasted no time delivering the point: Russell's watershed moment has arrived.
"If he can accept the responsibility of being an NFL quarterback," Cable said, "working more, working harder, working longer than everybody else, accepting the responsibility that his teammates look to him as the face of the organization, that he has to go above and beyond almost on a daily basis, that comes with that position, whether that's right or wrong, that's what it is – if he can accept that and become that, he'll be fine. He'll be great, I think. Has he done that? I think during the last six weeks [of the regular season] he started to."
Cable was sure to mention that Russell – the No. 1 overall pick from the 2007 NFL draft – has been around the facility more, watching tape, studying, and doing some of the things expected of NFL quarterbacks. He painted Russell as passionate and motivated, and did what you would expect most head coaches to do when they are trying to protect their prized commodity.
But through it all – and everything Cable said was in a positive tone – it was hard to get past the phrase, "If he can accept the responsibility". Clearly, Russell isn't there yet. If he was, his coach wouldn't make it a point to mention the gap. Not to knock Russell, but the rookies who had tremendous success last season – Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco – weren't dogged by qualifiers about responsibility.
In truth, Cable is being as diplomatic as he can in saying Russell is still growing and learning about pressure. He's still figuring out dedication.
Cable admitted that Russell wasn't overly engaged in the offseason program last summer, particularly as it pertained to doing work on his own. And a source close to Russell told Yahoo! Sports in mid-February that Russell had yet to start his expected offseason conditioning, choosing instead to relax.
It would be unfair to harp on what amounts to one offseason and the beginning of a second, but there's no denying this is a critical juncture in Russell's development. After a turbulent start to 2008, Russell finished with a three-game run in which the Raiders went 2-1 and he completed 62 percent of his passes (49 of 78) to go with six touchdowns and two interceptions. It was unquestionably the best three-game performance of his NFL career. More importantly, it provided Cable and the Raiders staff with a light at the end of a Silver and Black tunnel
Cable's response last week was clearly tied to that – knowing Russell is at an important stage, knowing he's finally got some momentum to work with, and then carefully planting that message of expectation. Certainly, there are mechanical things to work on, from his footwork to his decision-making and recognition. But none of that will matter if Cable can't get Russell to understand that responsibility and ownership and leadership typically trump size and arm strength. As Cable put it, Russell can embrace having a game on his shoulders, but he has to understand what it means to actually be ready to succeed within those moments.
"I know he likes that [pressure], but what I think we've got to get to, he's got to accept the responsibility," Cable said. "He's got to be prepared for those moments. It's one thing to throw it out there and think you're all that and, 'Hey, bring it on, it's two minutes and 28 seconds to go and we need a field goal, watch this.' That's great bravado. But he's got to be prepared to do those things. He's got to be prepared to be great in those moments."
That's what makes the coming months one of the most important pivot points in Russell's career. But he won't be alone. Every NFL team has a key player – regardless of age – who is entering a pivotal season. Here is a look at the other 31 teams, and a player who is facing a make-or-break 2009.
AFC EastBuffalo Bills
DE Aaron Schobel – He's been a bust since the team signed him to a big contract in the 2007 offseason. Injuries and general ineffectiveness have led to 7½ sacks in his last 21 games. He'll have to do far better than that to keep the team from dumping him in 2010, when his salary bloats to an average of over $6.5 million a season in base money in the final four years of his deal. If the Bills draft a defensive end in the first round this year, it should be a pretty strong indication they are readying an insurance policy for Schobel's departure. Miami Dolphins
S Jason Allen – Allen has never been able to stake his claim to a starting cornerback job, and this year might be his last chance. The team brought in Eric Green to compete with Allen for the starting job opposite Will Allen, and there is a strong possibility another cornerback will be selected in the draft. Allen was a gamble of former coach Nick Saban, and hasn't done much to show that he can be a top-tier starting cornerback. If he doesn't do it this season, he could get lost in the mix fast. New England Patriots
RB Laurence Maroney – Three years of injuries and indecisiveness at the line of scrimmage have corrupted New England's confidence in Maroney. The signing of Fred Taylor could be particularly ominous, meaning that the team is bracing for another year of limited production from a player who once looked like the team's future at running back. He's got two years left on a relatively palatable deal, so he's not exactly playing for his career. But if he can't get himself back into a groove next year, he'll likely spend the remainder of his time with the team in coach Bill Belichick's doghouse. New York Jets
OLB Vernon Gholston – It's hard to believe Gholston is already at a pivotal point in his career, but 2008 was just that embarrassing. His 13 tackles and inability to make even a slight pass-rushing impact caused serious alarm. New coach Rex Ryan is already talking him up, and hoping to get Gholston playing consistently before thinking about what kind of pass rusher he can be. One thing is for sure: If Gholston repeats his '08 performance, the comparisons to workout bust Mike Mamula won't be far behind.
AFC NorthBaltimore Ravens
RB Willis McGahee – He has been solid when healthy, but injury issues are starting to creep, and he continues to trudge out yardage in the 3.9 yard per carry range. He knows he has got something to prove, and has shown up for offseason conditioning, which is a rarity. But it may take a monster 2009 to keep him around, considering his salary escalates dramatically starting in 2010, when he's slated to count $6.35 million against the cap. From 2011 to 2013, he's due $24.3 million, which he'll likely never see. Cincinnnati Bengals
RB Cedric Benson – The Bengals gave him a two-year, $7 million deal this offseason, which is essentially another "prove it" contract. If Benson can reproduce what he did in the second half of '08 over the entire length of 2009, the Bengals might be inclined to give him an extension that would keep him in Cincinnati for the remainder of his prime years. But don't overestimate the Bengals' confidence. He's still playing for a long-term starting job.
WR Braylon Edwards – Edwards' production slid last season as he had a recurrence of his problems catching the ball. The last three years, he has put up one All-Pro season and two of lukewarm production for a No. 1 wideout. This is the last year of his deal, and the new regime apparently isn't going to be giving him a contract extension. So Edwards is playing for his next major contract, or at the very least, to force Cleveland to franchise him and work out a lucrative long-term deal. But if he repeats last season's disappointment (and, yes, 873 receiving yards and three touchdowns was a disappointment), he's going to be scrounging for a "big" deal the same way Plaxico Burress was when he left Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2005. Pittsburgh Steelers
T Max Starks – He's going to earn a good salary under the franchise tag, but the Steelers still haven't figured out whether he's worth a lucrative long-term deal. That's because Starks had everything to play for last season, and he lost his starting job before eventually getting it back due to injuries. At 27, it's time for Starks to emerge as a consistent force. If he struggles again, don't expect Pittsburgh to tag him and hope for the best.
AFC SouthHouston Texans
DT Travis Johnson – It's the last year of his deal and Johnson has never lived up to his billing as a first-round pick. Now that the Texans have signed Shaun Cody, who will likely push Johnson for his starting job, forget stardom. With only two sacks in four years, Johnson is playing to drum up what is likely to be meager free-agent interest after next season. Indianapolis Colts
RB Joseph Addai – Addai played hurt last season, but his yards per carry average has diminished each of his last three years. Some are starting to wonder if his penchant for taking big hits and lack of elite speed will relegate him to a good committee back rather than a great primary back. Entering the fourth year of a five-year deal, he'll be looking for a contract extension after 2009. But the Colts won't be inclined to give him a top-end deal if he can't stay healthy and deliver a superb season. Jacksonville Jaguars
RB Maurice Jones-Drew – He's in the final year of his contract and he's not going anywhere, but now that he's been promoted to starter and is expected to get the bulk of the carries, he's expecting to sign a huge deal that could make him the highest-paid running back. He has already shown durability and big-play ability. Now all he has to do is show it as a centerpiece back, and he'll get paid like one of the best. Tennessee Titans
QB Vince Young – Coach Jeff Fisher is giving Young an ever-so-slight opening to allow him the opportunity to reclaim the starting job. It still appears to be a long shot, but the team can't afford to rule out Young totally. He's due to make $7.5 million in base salary in 2010, which is going to be a hard number to swallow for a backup. So Young will likely get an opportunity this season to show he can still be in the long-term plans. But if he struggles on and off the field as he did in 2008, the Titans will likely shop him around and then consider cutting him.
AFC WestDenver Broncos
DE/LB Jarvis Moss – Moss has only produced 3½ sacks in two seasons, and now Denver is moving to a 3-4 alignment that will require him to stand up and play rush linebacker. That might not be a bad thing, since Moss was often criticized for not being physical at the point of attack, but he's still got to show a nastier nature. Defending in passing situations could be what makes or breaks Moss, as it's simply not something he has done with regularity.
DE Tamba Hali – Hali fell way out of favor with the last regime and there was talk he would be on the trading block this offseason, but that was before new general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley arrived. But that still may not change, as Hali looks like a square peg in the hybrid 4-3/3-4 looks that Pioli knows so well. If he can't find a niche as a pass rusher next season, he'll likely be shopped to teams that run a more vanilla 4-3 scheme. San Diego Chargers
WR Craig "Buster" Davis – Injuries slowed his contributions, and now that the team has developed Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd in addition to the presence of Chris Chambers, Davis looks like the odd man out. Unless he can show up to training camp healthy and consistently blow away the coaching staff, he'll likely be buried on the depth chart for the next three years, or until one of the other receivers leaves or suffers injury.
NFC EastDallas Cowboys
LB Bobby Carpenter – Word at the league meetings was that the Cowboys were shopping Carpenter before the draft but hadn't had many bites. And that's no surprise considering his mediocre production in his first three seasons. He makes $885,000 in base salary in 2009, so Dallas will likely take one more season to see if he can make some kind of impact. If he doesn't, they'll likely be willing to give him away for almost nothing before paying him $1.2 million in 2010 and then letting him walk in free agency. New York Giants
WR Sinorice Moss – He hasn't been anything like his brother, Redskins wideout Santana Moss, to whom he was compared coming out of Miami in 2006. Now Sinorice is likely playing for his NFL career in 2009, after producing virtually nothing of value in his first three years. Thus far, he hasn't even been able to make an impact on special teams, let alone climb the depth chart. This is his last year under contract, and he'll need to show something, anything, to draw some free-agent attention after the season. Philadelphia Eagles
T Winston Justice – Justice is another player who has been on the trading block this offseason. It's hard to believe the Eagles will get anything for him before the draft, considering Justice has failed to develop into even a solid platoon player. He could still get one last shot with the Eagles after their shakeup at offensive tackle, but with 2009 his last year under contract, he's another candidate to be playing for the veteran minimum on another team – or out of the league altogether.
QB Jason Campbell – With the team's free-agent splurge, you can feel Redskins owner Dan Snyder starting to lose patience. Campbell is a free agent after this season, and the team has declined to give him an extension. You can bet if he doesn't break through in a significant way, Washington will be letting him walk. There also has been talk in personnel circles that the Redskins are one of the 10 teams that inquired about Cutler, but that seems more like speculation than fact.
NFC NorthChicago Bears
QB Kyle Orton – General manager Jerry Angelo has made no secret that the Bears aren't sold on Orton as the answer at quarterback. This season is the final year of his contract, and the Bears inquired about the availability of Denver quarterback Jay Cutler. The writing is on the wall. If Orton doesn't dramatically improve this season, the Bears will be making other plans. Detroit Lions
QB Daunte Culpepper – At 32, he's in the twilight of his career, and Detroit's decision with the No. 1 overall pick could dramatically impact his latest window of opportunity. Regardless of where Detroit selects a quarterback, Culpepper is on a one-year deal. And if he flops in 2009, he likely won't get another chance to be a starter in the NFL, and could drop back out of the league altogether. If he can't play serviceably with wideout Calvin Johnson and the backing of one of the most supportive coaches in his career – offensive coordinator Scott Linehan – he can't do it. Green Bay Packers
DT Justin Harrell – In two injury-marred seasons, he has never come close to justifying his status as a mid-first round pick. Harrell isn't wildly expensive, making just over $640,000 in the third year of a five-year deal, and he he'll be relatively affordable through 2011. But he's the NFL version of empty calories, eating up roster space and producing little more than disappointment. If his back problems linger (and there are signs that they will), he'll be cleared for players who at the very least can stay healthy and platoon in the new 3-4 defensive scheme. Minnesota Vikings
QB Tarvaris Jackson – There will never be more pressure on Jackson than in this season, after the team acquired Sage Rosenfels to compete for the starting job and pulled out of trade talks for Denver's Jay Cutler. Indeed, head coach Brad Childress appears to have pushed all his chips in on Jackson, so the quarterback could be holding in his hand both his own job and Childress'. He's also a free agent after this season, so 2009 has the potential to determine the course of his NFL career … or if there will be one at all.
NFC SouthAtlanta Falcons
DE Jamaal Anderson – He's been an utter bust through two seasons, and won't trigger a $5 million sack escalator in his contract. He's got a $766,000 base salary the team can stomach this year. But he's making $1.16 million in 2010, which is more difficult to stomach if the Falcons aren't getting any return. That number pushes to $1.55 million in base money in 2011. Whatever the case, the Falcons seem certain to address defensive end in the draft, and if Anderson is relegated to an ineffective bit player in 2009, don't expect the Falcons to keep him around much longer.
WR Dwayne Jarrett – Coach John Fox put the pressure on Jarrett last week, saying he saw the light come on late last season and is expecting Jarrett to make healthy strides. Almost any contribution would be more than his tepid output through two seasons. Jarrett has two more cheap seasons, averaging just over $500,000 per year in base salary, so money isn't an issue. But if he can't break through next season, Carolina will look in another direction for a playmaker to groom. New Orleans Saints
RB Reggie Bush – He has had flashes, but he has also averaged 3.7 yards per carry in three seasons and begun to show serious wear and tear in his knees. That's not good for a player whose game depends on quickness and cutting. His latest microfracture surgery is particularly scary, and it doesn't help that Pierre Thomas is showing signs of being a workhorse. But his salary is truly dicey, with a scheduled $8 million base salary in 2010 and $11.8 million in 2011. If Bush can't stay healthy and produce, the Saints are going to have to think long and hard about those numbers. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
WR Antonio Bryant – A league source said Bryant wants a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of the top five wideouts. And the regime that loved him – former coach Jon Gruden and former general manager Bruce Allen – is gone. He's also in the league's substance program. Plain and simple, if Bryant wants the massive deal he thinks he's worth, he's going to have to have another year on his best behavior, and also needs another monster season while playing under the franchise tag in 2009. If he falters, Tampa Bay won't tag him again and he'll have to hope someone is willing to gamble.
NFC WestArizona Cardinals
DT Alan Branch – The player who was supposed to be a major draft coup has been panned by personnel men inside the Cardinals organization. He's been labeled as lazy and mentally soft, so maybe it's not a surprise he's got only 15 tackles in two seasons. He's already overpaid at $1.21 million this season, and that will rise to $1.3 million in 2010. If the Cardinals don't get something out of him in 2009, they'll likely shop him or dump him.
CB Tye Hill – After two seasons of nagging injuries, this may be his last opportunity for a starting job. The new coaching regime is still configuring the cornerback spots and Hill is a solid candidate to land a starting role. One thing is certain: He won't be cut or traded even if he can't start this season, simply because the $2.4 million owed to him over the next two seasons is reasonable for his position. But if he can't carve out a starting role or stay healthy this year, he won't be in the Rams' long-term plans. San Francisco 49ers
TE Vernon Davis – Another offensive coordinator, more renewed talk of maximizing Davis' athletic ability. It sounds like a running joke, considering Davis hasn't come close to establishing himself as one of the top 10 tight ends in the league. His scant 1,132 receiving yards in three seasons, combined with the fact that he is a mediocre blocker, make him one of the most overpaid players in the NFL. He's on the books for $8 million in cap space over the next two seasons, and he'd likely need to double last year's numbers (358 receiving yards and two touchdowns) to come close to justifying it. And, no, coach Mike Singletary still isn't a big fan. Seattle Seahawks
WR Deion Branch – Injuries have affected Branch in each of his three seasons in Seattle, and there was already talk this offseason that he could be a salary-cap cut. That won't happen, but Branch is going to have to justify Seattle paying him not only $4.94 million this year, but another $10.4 million in the final two years of his deal. Those numbers suggest Branch is going to have to put up his best seasons in a Seattle uniform, exceeding the 725 receiving yards and four touchdowns he notched in his first year with the franchise.