NAPA, CALIF. — As left tackle for the Oakland Raiders, Mario Henderson is responsible for protecting the blind side of quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
Henderson also has Russell's back.
"When people criticize him, it really upsets me," the hulking tackle said as he came off the field at training camp after the last practice of the weekend. "Some people say he looks fat. He wears baggy clothes; I wear baggy clothes. Sometimes, of course, he's going to look big.
"They haven't stood next to him and seen him on a scale to see how much he weighs, what he needs to weigh, or whatever. With his height, of course he's not going to be 200 pounds. He's not 6-1 or 6-2, he's 6-6 or 6-7. It's all negative, man."
The chorus of critics will get louder if Russell, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007, doesn't get off to a good start this year. He's in his third season, the time when NFL quarterbacks are expected to start hitting their stride, and his body of work so far hasn't bowled anyone over.
After practice Monday evening, Raiders Coach Tom Cable said he's simply looking for consistency from Russell.
"All that's been written and all that's been said, you just want to see him consistently get better from day to day, not have steps back," Cable said. "That lets his confidence grow."
When camp opened at the Napa Valley Marriott on Thursday, Russell spoke to reporters after the first practice. Listed at 6-6, 260 pounds, he made the somewhat surprising concession that he's a bit bigger than he'd like to be.
"Right now, I'd say I'm a little heavier," he said, then drawing a laugh from the reporters crowded around him with: "But I'm not 300 pounds like y'all said the last time."
Russell, who turns 24 on Sunday, ended the 2008 season on a positive note, as did his team, which closed out the schedule with victories over Houston and Tampa Bay with nothing but pride at stake. But for every good outing, he had a corresponding horrendous one, accounting for passer ratings both lofty (149.1, 128.1) and lousy (40.1, 19.0).
In the first round of this spring's draft, the Raiders turned their attention to the passing game, using the No. 7 pick on Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. He looked raw in an afternoon practice Sunday, dropping three passes in the same offensive drill. Watching from a nearby golf cart was Raiders owner Al Davis, who spoke to the rookie for several minutes after practice.
On Monday, Heyward-Bey had at least three more drops, including one ball that was intercepted after glancing off his hands. Cable conceded that the rookie "is pressing," and Russell urged the young receiver to relax.
More encouraging was the look of veteran receiver Javon Walker, who is coming off knee surgery and was working out with an assistant in an area away from the rest of the team. He was hopping over a series of low hurdles, then breaking into a sprint and catching pass after pass. He looked smooth yet explosive, which had to be a welcome sight to Russell.
For the most part, even in his best games, Russell has been more of an offensive caretaker than a quarterback who has taken over a game with his arm, which can be very impressive. He hopes to make that transition this season, coming off a year in which he had a modest 13 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
The goal, he said, is to keep defensive coordinators guessing.
"OK, what are they going to do this down; they going to pass it or run it?" he said. "Either way, we're going to kill 'em with both.
"Maybe we can climb higher and higher."
Further ratcheting up the pressure on Russell this season, he has veteran Jeff Garcia staring over his shoulder and pushing to take the field as soon as he can. Garcia, 39, is on his sixth team in seven seasons and has a history of being an effective short-term solution for teams in need of a boost.
"I'm not going to be that guy who's going to be detrimental to the team," Garcia said before the start of camp. "I'm not going to break down the team in any sort of way based upon my own personal selfishness. But what I'm there to do is help bring competition to the position, help raise the level of expectations at the position. And either the starter meets those expectations, or else somebody else has to step in and meet those expectations."
Worth noting: Russell outplayed Garcia in last season's finale at Tampa Bay, when the Raiders handed the Buccaneers their fourth consecutive defeat and knocked them out of postseason contention.
Asked about the pressure of holding off Garcia, Russell didn't sound too concerned, saying: "We're all for the same team and if he's going to push me to be my best, then if he goes out there and does better than me that week, then I'll be his biggest cheerleader, but we're all for the same team. I wish him the best, whatever happens."
There's little doubt the Raiders will give Russell every chance to prove that he's The Man, a player deserving of the six-year, $68-million contract he signed as a rookie. Never mind the bulk around his belt line, there's enough of it on his shoulders.
And the way his left tackle sees it, that's weight Russell will handle.
"Everybody knows about his arm strength," Henderson said. "But it's the stuff people don't see, like how he draws everybody's attention in the huddle. That's a great thing you want from your quarterback.
"He's got all the 10 guys around him looking at him. And we trust him too."
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JaMarcus Russell's career statistics:
*--* YEAR G PCT YDS AVG TD INT RAT 2007 4 54.5 373 5.7 2 4 55.9 2008 15 53.8 2,423 6.6 13 8 77.1 Totals 19 53.9 2,796 6.4 15 12 73.9 *--*