A first-year starter at quarterback can hamper a team, as Jay Cutler sometimes did with the Denver Broncos last season. The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, will be trying to minimize JaMarcus Russell’s growing pains.
After an inconsistent 2007 season, Cutler and the Broncos begin their quest to end a two-year playoff drought when they kick off the 2008 campaign with a visit to face Russell and the AFC West rival Raiders on Monday night.
With Cutler starting a full season for the first time, Denver went 7-9 last season. It was the Broncos’ first losing season since 1999, when they went 6-10.
Cutler had a fairly effective season, completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 3,497 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing 14 interceptions. But he faded down the stretch, citing tiredness as he posted quarterback ratings under 50 in two of his last five games.
In the offseason, Cutler finally got an answer for his lack of energy late in the season. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes this spring after losing 35 pounds last season, then had a tough time getting out of bed for offseason workouts.
With synthetic insulin and changes in diet, Cutler’s blood sugar levels are down and his stamina and strength are back.
Cutler, though, will be without top receiver Brandon Marshall, who is suspended for one game for violating the league’s personal conduct code. Denver will be forced to start rookie Eddie Royal opposite Darrell Jackson.
“I just look at it as a guy sprained his ankle on Friday,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “At least we have the whole week to get somebody else ready.”
Cutler will also be playing behind an offensive line that doesn’t have a single starter back from last season, and Denver lost promising running backs Ryan Torain (elbow) and Anthony Alridge (foot) in the preseason. Selvin Young and Andre Hall will split time in the Broncos’ backfield.
Oakland, meanwhile, will likely rely heavily on its running game with Russell slated to start full time. The Raiders drafted dynamic running back Darren McFadden with their first-round pick, and he will be complemented by 1,000-yard rusher Justin Fargas.
But opposing defenses will likely cheat a safety into run support until Russell proves he can keep them honest. After being selected No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft, Russell missed the entire preseason in a contract dispute. He signed a deal three days after the season began, falling so far behind that it took until December for him to get on the field.
Russell came off the bench in three games before starting the season finale against San Diego. He went 23-for-31 for 224 yards and a touchdown in his only start.
The Raiders wound up going 4-12 last season, and have lost 61 games over the past five years. That’s the worst stretch since owner Al Davis came to Oakland in 1963.
Any chance at improvement will depend heavily on Russell’s development, particularly with no proven backup behind him.
“You can never be Superman when you have other teammates,” Russell said. “So just go out there and do the basics and do what you do each and every day.”
McFadden is expected to help Russell right away. He has the speed to make game-breaking plays, and is a talented receiver and kick returner.
Oakland finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last year, but it was one of six teams that failed to have a touchdown run of at least 20 yards. McFadden is expected to change that.
He’ll be facing a Broncos defense that has been revamped after allowing 145.9 rushing yards per game and 409 points last season. Six teams scored more than 30 points versus Denver, and two scored more than 40.
The Raiders beat the Broncos 34-20 on Dec. 2 in the teams’ final meeting last season. Fargas rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown.
“You definitely take it personally because it’s a direct correlation to the front four,” Denver defensive tackle Kenny Peterson said. “We need to be a solid cog to this team, and that’s what we plan on doing.”
In an attempt to shore up their defensive line, the Broncos acquired tackle Dewayne Robertson in a trade with the New York Jets. They’re also expecting strides from second-year linemen Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder and Marcus Thomas.
An improved defensive line can only help Denver’s secondary, which includes cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dre’ Bly. Bailey has 42 interceptions since 1999 and Bly has 38 over that stretch, ranking No. 1 and 2 respectively among NFL cornerbacks in that span.
“We don’t know how we’re going to be until you get out there for 60 minutes,” Bailey said. “We’ve got to go out there and do what we’ve been taught.”
Bailey will have to contend with former teammates Javon Walker and Ashley Lelie. Walker was signed in the offseason, getting paid like a No. 1 receiver after his 2007 season with the Broncos was curtailed by injury.
Lelie, meanwhile, was signed Tuesday after being cut by San Francisco. The veteran wide receiver was a first-round pick by the Broncos in 2002, but hasn’t come close to matching his 54-catch, 1,084-yard 2004 season with Denver.
Lelie, though, has big play ability and Broncos defensive coordinator Bob Slowik said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Lelie running a few fly routes even though he signed this week.
“If he does play, it’s just run as fast as he can down the field,” Slowik said. “He’s going to go deep.”
Shanahan is 20-6 against the Raiders, who he coached from 1988-89.