STROLLING THROUGH the fight-night crowd Saturday sporting a New York Yankees cap and designer backpack, an unlit stogie dangling from his lips, JaMarcus Russell was all swagger and comfort, the picture of the good life.

It's as if the Raiders quarterback doesn't feel the flame licking at his heels.

The blaze is raging in the form of Jeff Garcia, an irrepressible challenger who as a football player is everything Russell is not.

Garcia is a smallish bundle of fast-twitch fibers. Russell is the Big Mellow, deliberate and cool.

Russell is the chosen one, an overall No. 1 draft pick blessed with an absurdly powerful arm. Garcia is the scrappy underdog who wages a daily fight for acceptance.

Garcia conveys palpable intensity. Russell projects complacency.

If the best of each could be combined to create one quarterback, the Raiders would have someone special — and they'd know it.

Instead, they wonder if Russell, 23, is committed to mining every ounce of his prodigious talent, wonder if his lust for greatness matches their desire to see him become great and wonder if Garcia, 39, still has enough game to awaken Russell's inner warrior.

Garcia would like to think he does, which explains the slight alterations in his comments during the May 8-10 minicamp and a May 14 interview with Los Angeles radio station KLAC.


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The former 49ers and four-time Pro Bowl quarterback told reporters during minicamp that he signed as a free agent with Oakland knowing Russell was the projected starter and that he, Garcia, was here to enhance Russell's development and play when needed. Garcia, whose playing days are nearing an end, grew up in Gilroy, and he also was attracted to the opportunity to bring his family near relatives.

Four days later, having fully processed the minicamp and perhaps sensing Russell is vulnerable to a challenge, Garcia seemed less concerned with incumbent status than the needs and goals of the team.

"I'm not going to say that things can't change, and I understand that the role I have basically assumes going in Oakland knowing that JaMarcus was drafted to be the starting quarterback there," Garcia told host Chris Meyers. "But there has to be some realization at some point as to putting the best players on the field that you are going to give you the best chance to win.

"Now if JaMarcus is that guy, then he definitely deserves to be on the field and should be on the field. But if for some reason with what I bring as a player, from a competitive nature and just the intensity and emotion that I bring to the field and the knowledge of the game that I have — if that gives us a better chance to win football games, then that decision is going to have to be left up to the coach and hopefully he can make the right decision for the team."

These aren't fighting words, hardly enough to incite a real quarterback controversy. This is Garcia assessing, speaking his mind and making sense.

Understand, too, that was not self-promotion. Garcia was urging the Raiders to put primary objectives ahead of politics or non-football agendas. He is asking a franchise known for changing priorities on a whim to put winning ahead of everything else.

"It's about the team; it's not about protecting egos or protecting investment dollars." Garcia emphasized. "It's about what's going to give this team a chance to win football games."

This message can just as easily be directed toward Raiders boss Al Davis as Russell. It's no more a challenge to Russell than it is a request of Davis, whose voice will be heard through coach Tom Cable.

Pressing the Big Mellow, trying to shake him from complacency, is the biggest favor Garcia can do for the Raiders. With Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner aboard to guide the offense, they need truth regarding Russell, and it behooves them to get it soon.

After all, how comfortable can they be with seeing their franchise quarterback kicking it at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Saturday night, checking out Andre Ward in the ring, looking like a man who has won the lottery?

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.