Impressive. Workmanlike. Attentive.
Words you don't normally associate with the career of JaMarcus Russell.
Yet during a recent workout with the Chicago Bears, Russell demonstrated the type of skill-set that saw him drafted number one overall in 2007.
Could one of the biggest busts in NFL history be set for a turnaround in fortune?
It's a small step, but a step nonetheless.
Russell's story has become the benchmark of how not to approach life in the NFL. It is as sad a story as you are likely to find anywhere, yet there is still hope he can resurrect his career, albeit a slim one.
When the Raiders selected Russell with the first overall pick out of LSU in 2007, he was seen as the future of the franchise. An imposing physical specimen (6'5, 265 lbs) with a cannon for an arm, Russell was seen to be too good to pass up as the number one pick. Despite initially holding out, Russell signed a six-year $68 million, of which $31 million was guaranteed. Giving unproven players contracts of this magnitude is now a thing of the past, with the rookie wage scale introduced with the latest collective bargaining agreement. Missing training camp turned out to be a catastrophe Russell couldn't recover from. It is an integral part of a rookies development and it was the first in a long line of bad decisions and caused Russell to miss the majority of his rookie season, not making his debut until December 2nd. Russell finished his rookie season with 373 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
The Raiders now felt he was fully prepared to take the reigns of the team and he was announced as the starter at QB. He was largely inconsistent, although he did show signs of what he was capable of. The Raiders didn't exactly do a good job of surrounding Russell with sufficient talent, nevertheless, his performance was a definite warning sign for the Raiders. Inconsistency and poor decision making were rife in his play, with some reports Russell wasn't preparing in the correct way during the week, even falling asleep during team meetings. He appeared lethargic and distant, with his weight increasing with every game, it looked like Russell was already falling out of love with the game of football. In 15 games, Russell threw for 2423 yards (161 yards per game), 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Hardly inspiring, but there were glimpses of potential and there was hope he would progress with the benefit of another off-season of study and practice.
How wrong they were.
In what ended up being his final season in Oakland, the capitulation of someone they pinned so much hope on was painful to watch. He had reportedly ballooned to almost 300 pounds (295) and was clearly not taking his career seriously. Whether it was his off-the-field activities, the company he was keeping or the big contract he got before he played a down, only Russell himself knows. In 12 games, 9 of which he started, Russell threw for 1287 yards (107.25 yards per game), just 3 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was even demoted to number 3 on the depth chart at one stage of the season.
It now seemed that the Raiders had given up on the Alabama native, what was more concerning, it looked as though Russell had given up on himself.
With his job on the line going into the 2010 season, Russell showed up for camp at the 300 lb mark. Hardly a sign of his improved commitment and work ethic. The Raiders were displeased and subsequently traded for Jason Campbell from the Washington Redskins, which was the final nail the coffin for Russell's time in Oakland. With his contract counting $9.4 million against the salary cap, it came as no surprise to anyone when Russell was eventually released.
No team has seen fit to sign him since.
It got messy with the Raiders, who attempted to claim over $9 million in advanced salary they paid him. Russell had made $36.4 million in three seasons with the team, which was larceny when you consider the contribution he made. Despite his horrific play, he did get a chance to try out with two NFL teams. The Miami Dolphins and the Redskins took a look at the troubled Quarterback, but didn't see enough to take a risk on him.
Russell has been without an NFL team ever since.
Showing no interest in playing in the CFL, Russell was now the most dangerous thing in sports.
A tortured soul with money to burn and too much time on his hands.
In most cases, when all those components are together, the result is trouble, and lots of it. Russell has had a problem with Codeine for some time, having tested positive for the substance after the 2007 NFL Draft. He seriously hampered his chances of being taken on by another NFL team when he was twice arrested for possession of Codeine without a prescription, once in 2010 and again in 2011. He was spared a prison term after a friend stated that the codeine bottle was his and it had nothing to do with Russell. NFL players are known for having problems with pain, mainly due to the violent nature of the game. Russell is a huge physical presence, but as the old saying goes 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall', which may have something to do with Russell's problems with the drug in the past. There are no signs to suggest he still has a problem with it, and any NFL team willing to give him a chance will no doubt do a thorough background check on him to confirm these problems are in the past.
To his credit, Russell saw the way his life was heading and decided to make some positive changes. NFL history is littered with players who have fallen into the abyss, resulting in prison time, bankruptcy and even suicide. Russell did not want to be remembered for anything as severe as that, he is also keen to change the opinion people have on him being the biggest draft bust in living memory. He reached out to some former NFL players for assistance and began the long road to redemption. Russell has been working on his game with former NFL Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who has been impressed with what he has seen from the former tiger. "I definitely would vouch for him. JaMarcus doesn't want to be remembered as the bust," Garcia said. "Here's an opportunity to turn the whole perception around as to who he is. He's definitely transformed himself."
Now down to his fighting weight (265 lbs), during a recent interview Russell acknowledged his complacency whilst playing in the NFL: "I blame myself," Russell said. "I could have given football more. I could have done more as a professional. There just could have been more film room, more classroom. I could have kept my weight down to become an overall better player". It would appear that the penny has finally dropped and he is willing to do what is necessary to make it back into the league. Players like Russell will always get a second chance if they prove their commitment. Arms like Russell's don't come around every day and teams are always looking for a Quarterback who can launch it down the field with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Like the Ravens assistant GM Eric DaCosta said recently: "The guy throws the ball better than most quarterbacks. He played at a high level in college. Guys have had second shots and really benefited. If he works hard and rededicates himself, his future is very bright."
Whether the Ravens will take a look at him as a possible backup to Joe Flacco, nobody can say for sure. It has been the Chicago Bears who have shown the most interest in Russell, inviting him to work out with the team in the hopes of winning a spot on the roster heading into training camp. With Jay Cutler spending so much time on his back last season, the Bears could use someone with a similar arm should Cutler once again have to sit a portion of the season out through injury. If reports are to believed, the workouts have gone well and the Bears are expected to take a second look at Russell sometime in the near future. A contract is still a long way in the offing, but this is a start, and that's all Russell wanted coming into this off-season.
At 27 years of age, he could still have a future in the game, if he keeps focused on doing the right things. He will be looking to shed more weight, as his mobility was one of the main factors for his failure first time around. If he succeeds, it would be a Cinderella story seldom scene in the NFL.
It will be fascinating to see how this story evolves in the coming months.
For now, at least, things are looking up for the man who had everything and lost it all.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_