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NAPA, Calif. - JaMarcus Russell was greeted at his first NFL training camp with some good-natured ribbing from veteran teammates acting surprised that he knew his way to the Oakland Raiders summer home in California’s wine country.
It was a fair question considering Russell was thousands of miles away a year ago in a contract holdout as the Raiders conducted training camp.
This year, Russell is front and center, the player being counted on to lead the Raiders back to their winning ways after five long years of losing.
“Everybody on the team gets paid off of what I do and the rest of the team does,” Russell said. “I hate to say it but I’m accountable for a lot of the guys’ families.”
That’s a lot of pressure on a player who has made only one NFL start and appeared in just four games as a rookie. Coach Lane Kiffin made him the starter for this season as soon as the 2007 campaign wrapped up, and he has spent the entire offseason preparing for it.
Being given the title of starter and earning the respect as the leader of the offense are different things. Russell said he noticed as the offseason went on that players began to follow his lead more and more.
“It is his team,” receiver Javon Walker said. “He’s a guy that knows what he can do, he knows the plays he can make and he knows where to lead this team. And guys like myself and along with the rest of the offense, we’re going to follow, because it all starts off with him.”
Russell has shown his brilliance at times in training camp, threading a pass perfectly between defenders or firing balls right on target while moving out of the pocket.
“He can whip that thing into small places in a heartbeat,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Those are traits that only someone with Russell’s physical abilities can make, but those are not the plays that the coaching staff focuses its lessons on.
Kiffin is more concerned with the more mundane topics like getting the team to the line of scrimmage quickly, switching plays when necessary and knowing when to throw the ball away.
“That’s all the stuff that wows the fans and people watching but that’s not what makes you a good quarterback,” Kiffin said. “A good quarterback plays with great discipline, he takes care of the ball and he throws things on time. We’re going to have to get that going with him. He’s continuing to improve on it.”
It’s a message that has gotten through already to Russell, who says his priority is focusing on the small details instead of making the spectacular play.
“When you pay close attention to that, then things will be better for you instead of being Superman all the time,” he said.
Russell didn’t get the chance to show much as a rookie after being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He played catch-up after missing all of training camp before signing his $61 million contract three days after the season began.
He didn’t step on the field until December, playing as a reserve in three games before starting the season finale against San Diego.
“I try not to regret anything in life but I wish I could have been here with the guys,” Russell said. “I see what it’s going to be like now from Day 1. I just wish I could have been here to push some of those guys with my practice and my play. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”
Russell showed signs of what the Raiders hope will come in the future when he completed 23 of 31 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers. It was a big improvement over his four-turnover performance the previous week as a reserve against Jacksonville.
There figure to be some of both kinds of days in Russell’s future.
“We have real high expectations for JaMarcus as he does for himself as well,” Kiffin said. “But he has to take it one step at a time. You’re not winning the Super Bowl by what you’re doing next week, so we’re not worried about that. He’s prepared so well. You just see the way players are around him and players are really starting to embrace him.”