JaMarcus Russell is the most overpaid, underachieving NFL player of his generation.
We may now know one of the reasons why.
Russell's arrest Monday for illegal codeine possession - combined with a media report that strongly hints at prior drug abuse - casts the former Oakland Raiders quarterback in a different light.
We've long assumed Russell was simply lazy, content to squander the roughly $40 million he was guaranteed by the Raiders before ever playing in an NFL game. Russell seemed to spend more hours partying in Las Vegas than studying defenses. The weight issues Russell had at Louisiana State University continued in the pros. He displayed no locker-room leadership.
After three seasons, Russell was an on-field liability. He was oblivious when grilled by the media or publicly chastised by Raiders head coach Tom Cable.
Of course, denial is one of the telltale signs among the addicted. If he was struggling with codeine dependency, Russell would actually become a somewhat sympathetic figure for the first time in his NFL career.
We still need more information to determine the extent of Russell's history with codeine, a prescription cough suppressant that has morphine-like effects when abused. Russell hasn't issued a statement since being briefly jailed Monday after Mobile, Ala. police cited him for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. The Mobile Press-Register reports that Russell is scheduled for a Wednesday bond hearing and July 20 court appearance.
While due process takes its course, all signs point toward Russell being at least a recreational codeine user. In a blog posting on the Contra Costa Times web site, Raiders beat writer Steve Corkran alluded to drug rumors that have hounded Russell for years but couldn't be proven by the newspaper.
Details may now emerge. Russell was arrested at his house as part of an undercover investigation. The nature of such police work alone suggests this wasn't a one-time mistake.
We should soon learn whether Russell was part of the "Purple Drank" craze glorified by some hip-hop artists. This potentially fatal concoction of cough syrup, Jolly Ranchers and Sprite/7UP has created an epidemic, especially among young African-Americans in southern states.
The crisis extends into the NFL. Two players in the past four years (Green Bay defensive lineman Johnny Jolly and late San Diego cornerback Terrence Kiel) were arrested on codeine-related charges. Kiel pleaded guilty to illegal distribution. He later died in a 2008 car crash. Felony charges against Jolly are still pending from when a codeine-laced drink was allegedly found in his car during a traffic stop.
Blaming codeine entirely for Russell's NFL failures would be disingenuous. Even if proven sober, Russell never seemed capable of fulfilling expectations as the 2007 draft's top pick. The Raiders, too, are culpable. Putting a young player without discipline on a team with the same flaw is a recipe for disaster. A rookie training-camp holdout, Oakland's head-coaching carousel and a shoddy supporting cast of wide receivers also helped contribute to Russell's demise and last month's release.
The free-agent interest Russell had reportedly drawn from NFL teams like the New York Jets and Minnesota will now end after Monday's arrest. Even the UFL might not be a viable option depending on Russell's legal status.
But at just 24 years old, Russell still has time to salvage his football career. The NFL offers second chances to those with special physical tools like the ones Russell has flashed from time to time. Even a quarterback considered the same magnitude of draft bust -- Ryan Leaf -- had stints with three other teams following his release by San Diego.
Russell can land on a 2011 roster provided he reinvents himself. He has to demonstrate a strong work ethic over an extended period of time and clean up his personal life. Russell must prove football means something to him besides an undeserved paycheck.
Should this happen, Russell will serve as an inspiration to others by having overcome his problems and clawing back into the league. That would be a better legacy than being solely remembered as a drug-addled embodiment of everything wrong with the NFL's rookie salary system.
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