Look who's stepping up

ALAMEDA, Calif. — JaMarcus Russell dropped back to pass, read the defense and then found Chaz Schilens with a fade in the corner of the end zone against man coverage.

That play in last week's victory over Houston was just what the Oakland Raiders expected from Russell when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2007 and what has often been lacking for much of his first full season as a starter.

But as Russell heads into the final game of his first full season as a starting NFL quarterback on Sunday at Tampa Bay, it is clear that he is making strides toward becoming the franchise player the Raiders have been waiting for since that draft day.

"People expect for things to be quick, fast, in a hurry," Russell said. "They don't really know football, because there's a process, and now we're on one of those building stages of the process. I'm happy to be a part of that because once things start getting going, then everybody wants to be praising, pat you on your back."

After making only one start last season following a lengthy contract dispute that cost him the entire preseason, Russell has been considered by his coaches to essentially be a rookie this season.

It's been a trying year at times as Russell has had to deal with two head coaches, three offensive play-callers and a litany of losses and failures he rarely experienced before being a No. 1 overall draft pick.

From his perceived lack of passion on the field, to missing a production meeting with a television crew to poor on-field decisions to even the flashy coats and jewelry he wears to postgame interviews, Russell has dealt with more than his share of criticism this season.

Learning to deal with those setbacks has been as much a part of his maturation process as learning to decipher NFL defenses.

"As far as the fans, the team, everybody. They always put it on the quarterback and the head coach no matter if it's good or bad," Russell said. "You've got to be ready for that criticism, take it and let it roll off your back. That's just the name of the game. If you can't deal with that, then this is not the game for you."

Russell has completed 53 percent of his passes this season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. While he struggled early in the season, Russell has been much better of late, especially after missing one game with a knee injury.

He has completed just over 60 percent of his passes in his last six games, with a very respectable passer rating of 86.9 despite injuries that have ravaged Oakland's receiving corps.

He might have been at his best in last week's 27-16 win against the Texans, when he finished 18-for-25 for 236 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's just continuing to grow as a leader and he's doing a good job," running back Justin Fargas said. "I just let him know we need him to be our leader. I just tell him to lead us and to be confident in us, that we can make plays for him."

While Russell falls short in comparisons to rookies like Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, who immediately turned their teams into winners, his numbers compare very favorably to the other quarterbacks selected first overall.

In his first 15 NFL starts, Russell has completed 54.8 percent of his passes for 2499 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Those numbers are far from spectacular, but only two of the previous 15 quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall since the start of the common draft in 1967 — Michael Vick and Carson Palmer — have a higher passer in their first 15 starts than Russell's 77.0.

He has fared better than future Super Bowl champions like Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.

"You look at all the big time players they went through a lot to get where they are," Russell said. "It's a tough time we're going through right now, in the process of building something big. We just have to step up from that, keep going."

One of the top attributes that attracted the Raiders to Russell was his strong arm that is capable of throwing the ball 80 yards down field. But he has struggled to hone his deep stroke this season, completing just seven of his 41 passes that have gone more than 20 yards down field, according to STATS LLC.

That can be partially attributable to season-ending injuries to receivers Drew Carter, Javon Walker and Ashley Lelie.

But the touchdown pass to Schilens last week came on one of those deep throws, giving the Raiders hope that Russell has turned the corner. Ending the season on a high note against Tampa Bay will just reinforce that notion.

"You're going to see, that was a breakthrough game for that guy," interim coach Tom Cable said. "With the progress he's making, to back it up would be great for him in terms of his approach into the offseason. And then he can focus on his body and getting himself where he wants to be physically and all those things. It's very important."

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