Bruce Gradkowski solidified his position as starting quarterback by leading the Raiders to an upset win over the Cincinnati Bengals — and he may have ended JaMarcus Russell’s career in Oakland.
Remember that NFL contracts are basically one-year deals with multiple club options because teams can cut a player after any year. That’s why agents fight hard for a big first-year payoff and signing bonuses, the only guaranteed money in a contract.
Remember, too, that Alex Smith came back to the 49ers only because he agreed to a restructuring of his contract for much less money. The 49ers weren’t going to pay Smith big bucks to sit on the bench — though he has since regained his starting position — and Al Davis won’t pay big bucks for Russell to sit, either.
And, after Gradkowski’s first start, it appears that Russell will be benched for the rest of the year.
It’s not that Gradkowski looked like the reincarnation of Peyton Manning. His stats were mostly ordinary, 17-of-34 for 183 yards.
But he threw for two touchdowns and, most of all, he looked like a quarterback. He moved around in the pocket to avoid the rush, he went through his reads efficiently; Louis Murphy was the second option on the touchdown pass that tied the game late in the fourth quarter. He called the right formations. He didn’t fumble.
In other words, he was the exact opposite of Russell.
Maybe it comes down to motivation. Russell was given a huge contract as the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, though it took half a year for him to agree to a contract, and he was handed the starting job last season. He has done little since to show that he deserved it and, in fact, had regressed before he was finally benched by coach Tom Cable, as always, after asking permission of Davis.
Russell has not worked to improve himself, either with his mental attitude or physical conditioning. He was relying strictly on his strong arm but, despite coaching by two excellent quarterback mentors, Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner, never learned the proper mechanics, constantly throwing off his back foot.
Gradkowski’s path has been much rougher. He was a sixth-round pick in 2006 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was released after two seasons. He was in the St. Louis Rams’ training camp in 2008, but went to the Cleveland Browns after being cut by the Rams. He was picked up in the offseason by the Raiders on a waiver claim and was battling Charlie Frye for a position on the practice squad before Jeff Garcia was released, apparently at his request.
But Gradkowski has persevered. He is much like Rich Gannon in his approach to the game, spending hours looking at game videos to know how to attack an opponent. If Russell’s lack of work ethic is an example of how not to approach the job, Gradkowski’s is the model for the right way.
And remember that Gannon was an unvalued free agent before he came to Oakland and led the Raiders to the Super Bowl.
No, I’m not suggesting that the Raiders are on a Super Bowl path. They have too many problems, starting at the top. But no NFL team is successful without a good quarterback. With Russell, the Raiders never had a chance. Gradkowski gives them that chance.
Raiders vs. Cowboys
WHEN: Thursday, 1:15 p.m.
WHERE: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
TV: CBS (KPIX, Ch. 5)
RADIO: KSFO (560 AM)