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With Raiders struggling, focus turns to when Russell will play

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The calls for JaMarcus Russell to play have already started from disgruntled Raiders fans. The franchise quarterback said he's ready, and coach Lane Kiffin admits he often thinks about playing the rookie.

The question now is when do the Raiders actually turn their struggling offense over to Russell and begin to see whether they made the right decision by making him the No. 1 pick in the draft and guaranteeing him at least $29 million.

**Daunte Culpepper** 2007 statistics

Att: 125

Comp: 70

Yards: 817

TD/INT: 4/4

**Josh McCown** 2007 statistics

Att: 95

Comp: 57

Yards: 652

TD/INT: 5/8

"You got to make sure JaMarcus is ready to play," Kiffin said. "This is our franchise, it's the guy you gave a lot of money to, picked first overall. You better make sure you have the right stuff around him, and he's ready to play at the right time and he knows what he's doing."

While Raiders fans have grown tired of watching Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper struggle to move the offense on a team off to a 2-6 start, they will have to wait at least a little longer to see Russell.

McCown will start Sunday against Chicago and Culpepper will back him up. But Kiffin said there's a chance Russell would be the second quarterback soon, allowing him to use the rookie for a few drives early in the game if he chooses.

"Whatever he feels is necessary for the team and that's what we're going to go with," Russell said. "Coach, he calls the shots."

Complicating matters is that Russell missed all of training camp and the preseason in a contract dispute. He signed with the team three days after the season opener, missing valuable practice time.

During the season, Russell mostly is relegated to scout team duty in practice. He does come in for special sessions with practice squad players on Tuesdays and goes through the game plan in an empty stadium on Sunday mornings pretending he's facing a real defense.

"It's just a matter of time before you get in there and have confidence to be yourself," Russell said. "I'm a very competitive guy. I'm very confident in myself. I'm pretty sure those guys are well. It's a matter of time before I get out there."

How to handle rookie quarterbacks is an open question. David Carr became the starter in his first game with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. Carson Palmer didn't even take a single snap as Jon Kitna's backup in Cincinnati the following season. Then again, playing right away didn't hinder Peyton Manning.

Of the 19 quarterbacks taken in the first round this decade before Russell, the average player started six games as a rookie and played in eight. The Raiders are weighing the value of gaining experience against the potential harm of playing Russell before he's ready.

"Just because you play doesn't make you a better player," Kiffin said. "There are guys who can go through really bad experiences and you have to deal with that. ... Now all of a sudden, you got to go rebuild him from a guy who has been successful his whole career playing quarterback. You got to rebuild him from him doubting himself, his self-confidence."

Russell went 25-4 as LSU's starting quarterback, finishing his career with the Tigers by throwing the second most touchdown passes (52) and having the second highest completion percentage (61.9 percent) in school history.

Russell, who sat behind Matt Mauck and Marcus Randall his first year in college, is prepared to handle any adversity from playing as a rookie.

"In high school, my coach always told me to stay on an even keel. No matter what, never make the game too big or make it too small," he said. "Anything that happens, always be even or levelheaded. I've kind of been like that for a long time."

Receiver Ronald Curry said this week it would hard to start a rookie at quarterback when the rest of the offense is struggling as much as Oakland's.

The Raiders are tied for the seventh most sacks allowed and have committed the most holding and false start penalties in the NFL. While the running game has been solid most of the year, Oakland lacks the game-breaking receivers to take pressure off the quarterback.

"It's easier to step right in if we had this great offense that was scoring, even though you wouldn't be asking for him," Kiffin said. "Then it's easier, it always is. That's the whole thing. A lot of times the guys that get drafted later in the first round do better. Why do they do better? Well they got drafted later and went to a team with better personnel around them."

That's what happened in Pittsburgh to Ben Roethlisberger, who went 13-0 as a rookie starter in 2004 and won the Super Bowl the following year.

Russell didn't get that benefit.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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