Sports

Commentary: Time for rookie Russell to lose the diapers

OAKLAND -- Lane Kiffin isn't going to win this one. His decision to start JaMarcus Russell in the second half of the Raiders' loss to the Indianapolis Colts very possibly influenced the outcome and most certainly contributed to the loss of momentum Sunday inside McAfee Coliseum.

His rookie looked like a rookie. His starter performed like a pro. His club lost another close one.

But Kiffin is paying for the sins of the offseason and preseason -- of his organization's follies -- and who expected anything else? Who didn't predict his predicament, that determining when and how often to play Russell would be an exhaustive debate without end? That the quarterback experiment would become the overriding issue in a season? That there would be days like this?

"We're too far along to feel good because we played the world champs (competitively)," Kiffin said following the Raiders' 21-14 loss to the Super Bowl champions. "We gotta start winning these games. Someday we'll be the team that makes the plays and finishes people off."

Maybe, when the diapers come off.

The Raiders' failure to sign the NFL's No. 1 overall draft choice before the start of training camp virtually assured a chronic quarterback dilemma, and most importantly, inevitably slowed Russell's maturation. The youngster can't improve if he doesn't play, but he can't play well if he hasn't had the time to learn his reads and absorb the nuances of the system.

"We made such a commitment to playing (Russell)," a reflective Kiffin said. "Did that cost us or keep us from winning the game?

I don't know that. It was something we decided to do. Last time (against the Denver Broncos), it helped; it created energy around him. This time it didn't."

Yet at this point -- a moot point, if you will -- the options are as severely limited as the remaining number of games. Precisely two.

Kiffin can continue easing Russell into selected game situations, encouraging the rookie to take baby steps, or he can accelerate the process and send the 6-foot-6, 255-pound former LSU standout onto the field for extended playing time and more invaluable experience against Jacksonville and San Diego.

Just a thought, but this seems like the ideal time to start acting like adults.

Al Davis didn't spend his millions (belatedly) for another offseason of maybes and mystery. Kiffin doesn't need another summer of wondering whether his prized 2006 draft pick is worthy of his lofty stature or just another quarterback bust.

And fans aren't flocking back to McAfee Coliseum to watch an ongoing procession of journeymen quarterbacks almost lead the rebuilding Raiders to improbable victories, even over teams the caliber of the Colts.

In fact, excluding Josh McCown's friends and relatives, maybe even a babysitter and a few Texas transplants, there wasn't anyone on the premises Sunday who wasn't hoping for a longer peek at the massive Russell.

McCown is a little bit like Kiffin; he can't win, either. Though booed only selectively -- three times by my count -- he failed to generate much fan enthusiasm. The 99-yard, 20-play drive he engineered in the closing minutes of the second quarter, effectively mixing screen passes and bootlegs with off-tackle bursts by Justin Fargas, earned him polite, rather than rousing, applause.

It also kept the Raiders within 10-7 at halftime and placed the squeeze on Kiffin: Stay with the effective McCown or stick with the plan and turn to the rookie?

"It's just my opinion," McCown said afterward, "but you don't want to put a guy in a bad situation. But if you draft a guy to be your future, and he starts acting like the future, then you leave him in there."

Let's just say, the future wasn't Sunday.

Unlike in his debut against the Broncos, when Russell completed 4 of 7 passes for 56 yards and was on the field for two series and 16 plays, the more conservative game plan against the Colts called for handoffs and short passes. Never gaining a rhythm or appearing totally comfortable, the rookie completed 2 of 5 passes (including one drop) and remained on the field for three series, McCown's return seemingly inevitable.

"I wish I could have been out there more," the soft-spoken Russell said, "but Josh has a lot of game-time experience, and the way the game was going, I was pretty sure coach was going to put him back in there. If (Kiffin) wants to put me in, or take me out, it doesn't matter because I know I'm making progress."

Two games remain. Two more glimpses to ascertain the degree of progress?

But who's counting?

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