I fear for the Oakland Raiders. I really do.
They've never been in this spot – with Al Davis at the wheel, the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in their lap, and desperately needing to make the right decision. Not just for a fan base that has been in agony for the last four seasons with 15 total wins. But for a franchise that has lost its way so horribly, a Las Vegas odds maker would say the smart money is on Oakland blowing it when the draft begins on Saturday.
But I have hope. Hope that Davis won't do the popular thing. Won't do what pundits say he has to do. I have hope he'll make the smart bet and pass on LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Go with wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Go with the steak rather than the sizzle.
I say this not because I think Russell is a bad choice for the Raiders. I say this because I think Russell is a bad gamble for the Raiders. Of course, analysts will argue otherwise. Yahoo! Sports' Cris Carter doesn't even agree with me, saying he thinks you have to draft a franchise quarterback when it's a need and there is one sitting in front of you. But I see it as a case-by-case scenario, not just some blind oath of "always take the quarterback."
While Russell's arm strength is truly exquisite – and I witnessed it myself at his pro day in March – that's not enough for the Raiders to take the risk. Nor is his amazing size or the fact that he played tough competition last season at LSU.
Strangely enough, I have changed my opinion 180 degrees over the last 3½ months. When I saw Russell play in the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, I called our other NFL writer, Jason Cole, told him to turn on the game, and proclaimed "That's the No. 1 pick in the draft."
I was sure of it … until I really thought about it.
The longer I picked over the statistics and scouting opinions, the more I had a creeping feeling that this was a player ripe to be spoiled in the wrong conditions. Rush him into action, and he'd flop. Don't surround him with the right coaches and ample offensive pieces, and he'd fail. Which eventually put me where I am now: If you send Russell to the Raiders right now, with the environment still so unstable and the talent still so uncertain, you might as well take him to the Golden Gate Bridge and throw him over.
It's probably not the popular opinion, what with Russell being adorned with the annual sashes of "best arm of the draft" and "limitless potential." But these are the blind compliments of the NFL draft. Too often we talk about the tools, but disregard other factors. With that in mind, I give you three quotes about another quarterback with a strong arm and limitless potential. He ended up in a similar circumstance to what Oakland is going through right now. And the result was less than ideal.
"The story of this draft is Akili Smith. A lot of people had him No. 1 on their boards." – former Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet on April 17, 1999, after the Bengals drafted what they thought was their franchise quarterback.
"That was the biggest deal I ever turned down. Maybe next year or three years from now I'll say, 'If we'd have done that, golly, would we be in better shape?' I hope I don't have to think that." – Bengals owner/president Mike Brown on April 17, 1999, admitting that he drafted Smith rather than accept a trade offer from the New Orleans Saints that would have delivered nine draft picks, including three first-round choices.
"You put John Elway's arm on [Randall] Cunningham, that's what you're getting in me." – Akili Smith on April 18, 1999, at his introductory meeting with reporters.
History is a cruel thing.
And now I can't get Smith out of my mind. Do I think Russell is a better player than Smith? Yes, I do. But do I think Oakland is a better destination than Cincinnati was in the 1990s? Absolutely not.
In fact, a lot of the parallels are disturbing. In Smith, you had a kid who was shot out of nowhere – whose one rocket-propelled season at Oregon and franchise measurables had the heads of scouts spinning. He wowed coaches in every conceivable way of the sorting process. Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid gushed about Smith's arm. Former Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer loved his mobility. Coslet and the Bengals ate up his cocky leadership.
Go back and sift through all the media reports about Smith in late February and March of 1999. He was painted as a "boom" pick with big potential, despite his one year of dominance and some character baggage that came along with him.
"Big arm." "Good size." "Raw skill." "Limited dominance." "Has a tendency to force things with his arm."
It should because those are five of the significant bullet points on Russell this year: Otherworldly arm strength; huge body; a ceiling that stretches beyond that of Brady Quinn and every other quarterback in this draft; and some lingering questions about how he only truly surfaced during the final seven games of his career and sometimes used his arm to compensate for impatience. Between Smith and Russell, the tool set is more similar than not.
Next issue: environment. Like Cincinnati in the '90s, Oakland has become a place that marquee free agents avoid. There has been massive turnover in the coaching staff. And for one reason or another, promising first-round picks don't fulfill their potential. For the Bengals, it was Ki-Jana Carter, Dan Wilkinson and John Copeland, among others. For the Raiders, it's been guys like Robert Gallery, Phillip Buchanon and Matt Stinchcomb. Quarterback projects have been a bust in both places, too. In Cincinnati it was Donald Hollas, before ending his career in Oakland, and David Klingler prior to Smith. In Oakland it's been Marques Tuiasosopo, Andrew Walter and veterans like Kerry Collins and Aaron Brooks.
Critics of this line of thinking will come back and say "So what? The draft is a crapshoot anyway. If you're going to swing and miss, swing and miss while going for a game-changing player." And that's a fine argument. I have no problem with that at all. But I do argue with those people who say you have to take a shot at Russell just because he's sitting there, particularly when Calvin Johnson is on the board.
In Johnson, you have one of the most infallible prospects to go through the draft's sifting process in years. And that's not my own opinion. That's the opinion of a lions-den of decision-makers and scouts, guys who live to find a flaw. We're talking about the same guys who looked at Reggie Bush last year and suggested he might not be an every-down back. The guys who looked at Vince Young and said it might take two years before he would be ready to consistently start. Who looked at Matt Leinart and said he was "too Hollywood" and "might be a product of all the talent surrounding him."
Yet, these same guys on Calvin Johnson? Largely silent.
They say the kid has everything: a long record of dominance, success under the worst of conditions, a great attitude, great rapport with his teammates and top-notch work ethic. And lest we forget, like Russell, he has the size and tools that have had personnel departments raving and teams pondering a trade-up to go after him. Even when it surfaced last week that Johnson reportedly had admitted to trying marijuana, it was spun in a positive light – that Johnson had the character to tell the truth when lying was the easier thing to do.
Johnson is the safe gamble. And for the Raiders, he's the good gamble. He won't need to be stuffed into an incubator for a year like Russell as fans wait impatiently. The coaching staff won't have to worry about overloading him or destroying his confidence – two things that are always issues with quarterbacks. And best of all, Oakland can take a shot at one of the draft's other quarterbacks with the 33rd overall pick. Take the best of both worlds: Johnson making plays on the field, while Drew Stanton or John Beck or Trent Edwards matures on the bench.
Go safe. Improve on the NFL's worst offense with a sure bet. And know that it's worked for other teams in the past. Think about how a little over six years ago, the San Diego Chargers traded out of the top pick in the draft when everyone said it was an absolute atrocity to pass up on Michael Vick.
"Some people thought it was crazy," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith told Yahoo! Sports last season. "You couldn't pass up the talent and potential of Michael Vick. But we did."
And with Johnson sitting in their laps, the Raiders have to do just that, too.