Unbusted: JaMarcus Russell

In our new feature, Unbusted, we take a look at prolific draft busts throughout the history of sports, and try and retrace their path to becoming a bust.

He was once rumored to have weighed more than 300 pounds. He was once arrested for possession of “purple drank”. He was given a six-year, $68 million contract as a rookie, and still took home 35 million of it. He was forced to sell his $2.4 million mansion to avoid foreclosure. What happened to Jamarcus Russell? How did he end up being such a bust? And most importantly, why did we think he was good?

Russell was highly touted as a recruit, finishing his career as Alabama's state high schools’ all-time passing leader with 10,648 yards. The quarterback whose record he broke? Brodie Croyle, who went on to start at Alabama and play for the Chiefs, before injuries forced him into early retirement. Like Croyle, Russell was heavily recruited by both LSU and Florida State, with the two schools competing neck-and-neck for the 6-5, 220-pound stud out of Mobile. Russell was openly still torn between the two schools. On February 2nd, three days before ultimately committing to LSU, Russell told Rivals "It's obviously my two schools - LSU and Florida State. But I'm really up in the air. I guess I probably wouldn't sign if I had to today.”

Both schools had a lot to offer JaMarcus. At LSU, Nick Saban was just getting started, still two years before hightailing it for a cup of coffee with the Miami Dolphins. They had an absolutely loaded class, with Russell being the 28th and final commit. JaMarcus wasn’t even a five-star prospect. The only player of the class that could boast that was running back Justin Vincent, 2004 National Championship MVP and unfortunate recipient of career-ending knee problems, beginning with a vicious hit in the 2005 Peach Bowl against Miami.

Florida State’s ace in the hole was the potential for JaMarcus to start as a true freshman. His competition would have been Chris Rix. Yes, as in Chris “Who the Hell is Chris Rix” Rix. It wasn’t like Florida State wasn’t a good school. Even with Rix as a starter from 2001-2004 (the only four-year starter in the school’s history), the Seminoles won three ACC titles and appeared in four bowl games. Also, Bobby Bowden hadn’t yet melted into his rocking chair, so he was still a well-regarded coach (Fun fact: future FSU coach Jimbo Fisher was the offensive coordinator for LSU at the time. Double fun fact: the defensive coordinator was Will Muschamp. Talk about a loaded coaching staff).

As we all know, Russell ended up going to LSU and redshirted, as the Tigers went on to win the National Championship that year with Matt Mauck at the helm under center. Russell would split time as starter the next season with Senior Marcus Randall, and would occasionally share time the following season with fellow 2003 recruit Matt Flynn. Through his first 22 games, Russell had performed quite well, though he hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. He threw for 3,496 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, completing roughly 55% of his passes. JaMarcus would cap his underwhelming 2005 campaign by suffering a shoulder injury in the SEC Championship game, where LSU lost to Georgia, 34-14.

The heat was on Russell at the start of the 2006 campaign. Facing competition from both Flynn and true freshman (and fellow future bust) Ryan Perrilloux, who was the number one quarterback recruit in the nation, according to Rivals. To Russell’s credit, he stepped up and had the season of his life, no exaggeration. He completed nearly 68% (!!!) of his passes, throwing for 3129 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions, one less than the previous season. JaMarcus would go on to lead LSU to a commanding 41-14 Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame, where he threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns on 21-34 passing. 

All was not perfect for Russell that season, though. When he didn’t play well, neither did LSU. Take the Auburn game that season, a hideous 3-7 loss, the first of two that season for the Bayou Bengals. Russell was blanked that game, his only zero-touchdown performance of the season, on 20-35 passing for 269 yards. LSU’s second loss of the season came against future National Champions Florida, then-ranked #5. This might be known as Tim Tebow’s first coming, as he came off the bench to throw for two touchdowns on just two passes, and rush for a third. Russell’s game went the exact opposite direction, throwing 41 passes but completing just 24 for 228 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. His second three-pick performance would come against Tennessee, though he also threw three touchdowns that game (one of five three-TD performances that season), including the go-ahead TD with nine seconds left on the clock. So even with his bad games included, of which there were few, there wasn’t much evidence to indicate that Russell was any kind of “feast or famine” performer by any stretch.

The praise for Russell leading up to the draft was somewhat mixed, but those who did praise him did it with hilarious hyperbole, with comparisons ranging from Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper (CBS Sports) to John Elway and Brett Favre (FootballOutsiders.com). People loved, loved, loved his arm strength. John Clayton wrote pre-draft, “Russell said [he] can throw the ball more than 80 yards. [Oakland wide receiver] Randy Moss was always looking for a quarterback who could try to overthrow him on a deep route. Culpepper, who has one of the strongest arms in football, couldn't overthrow him in Minnesota. Russell can, and it's that type of deep throwing ability that intrigues the Raiders.” Todd McShay admitted "I can't remember being in such awe of a quarterback in my decade of attending combines and pro days.” Even Jon Gruden referred to his workout as “Star Wars”, which I presume referred to Russell’s ballooning figure as a comparison to Jabba the Hutt.

Russell’s weight was an issue from the moment draft talk started bubbling. He weighed in at 265  pounds at the combine, and many scouts took it as an indication that he didn’t care that much about football. His intelligence was never praised for a second, either, not surprising given that wasn’t much to be had. Combine all that with the black hole of hope known as the Oakland Raiders, and it’s starting to become clear why Russell wasn’t a successful quarterback. Young, fat, prone to overconfidence and boneheaded plays, on the worst franchise in NFL history and grossly overpaid, Russell’s story was practically written from the start.

It wasn’t that the red flags weren’t reported on. They were just ignored. When truly desperate for a quarterback, teams will believe anything they tell themselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to critique JaMarcus Russell as a one-year wonder that was overhyped going into the draft. I do think it’s somewhat unfair to believe that he couldn’t have had a long career, or any kind of success if put in the right situation. Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock, for as kooky (and wrong) as they can be sometimes don’t just make things up about players out of thin air. JaMarcus Russell was a talented quarterback, who maybe had a couple personal issues (and a couple personal pizzas) and was drafted into an awful situation.

I’ll let a Kiper quote sum things up: "JaMarcus Russell is going to immediately energize that fanbase, that football team -- on the practice field, in that locker room. Three years from now you could be looking at a guy that's certainly one of the elite top five quarterbacks in this league.”

In three years, Russell was out of football.