Frantz: Raiders need to take reins off Russell

It’s been a five-year stretch of futility for the Raiders, and while hope always springs eternal at the start of each new season, there really haven’t been many reasons for the Raider Nation to get truly excited in any of the previous four.

There are plenty of reasons now.

There is cause for genuine optimism in Oakland because tonight, the lights will be shining, figuratively and literally, on a fresh stable of horses that are eager to get out and run. And if you don’t like the horse reference, considering tonight’s opponent, then feel free to view Lane Kiffin’s multitude of young offensive stars as race cars revving their engines, and waiting to lay rubber as they peel out onto the track.

Tonight, the Raiders’ second-year coach will likely take the wraps off of one of his ultra-talented first-round draft picks, giving Mike Shanahan’s Broncos a healthy dose of what may be the most dynamic offensive rookie in the NFL. Used very conventionally in the preseason, Darren McFadden should get plenty of touches in open space in the nationally televised Monday night opener, even with 1,000-yard rusher Justin Fargas carrying much of the load. The Raiders ran the ball very well against the hated Broncos a year ago, and “Run-DMC” should make things even tougher on Denver, especially if Kiffin incorporates his star rookie’s receiving skills into the gameplan right out of the gate.

But McFadden’s debut in Silver and Black should be only half the story. For the Raiders, who poured tens of millions of dollars into this team in the offseason, to really show their commitment to winning right now — it’s time to stop baby-stepping quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Let the man throw the ball.

Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who started just one game a year ago and appeared in four altogether, is expected to do little more than hand the ball to Fargas and McFadden tonight, but with the Broncos almost assuredly preoccupied with stopping the Raiders’ running game, what better time is there to let Russell put his prodigious right arm on display? Javon Walker is expected to play, and will hopefully be ready to put his tumultuous offseason and training camp behind him. Ronald Curry is ready to go and Zach Miller is a big threat at tight end — not to mention McFadden’s proven ability to catch the ball. So why not hammer the Broncos with halfbacks early and then let Russell air it out?

Kiffin has been understandably cautious in developing Russell, but it’s time to take the training wheels off. He is the unquestioned starter and the leader of the Raiders’ offense. If the team has any hopes at all of returning to respectability this season, and getting a return on the enormous financial investments they made heading into it, they’ve got to get big plays out of their big playmakers.

They’ll put the ball in the hands of McFadden, as they should — but here’s hoping they don’t take it out of Russell’s. The big guy’s ready. Let’s see what he’s got.

Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at bfrantz@sfexaminer.com.

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