JaMarcus Russell started 25 of 26 games before he was benched by Raiders coach Tom Cable nine games into this season.
That makes the man with the million-dollar arm the subject of the million-dollar question: Will he ever reclaim his status as the Raiders' unquestioned starting quarterback?
Russell hasn't spoken with the media since he was demoted Nov. 18. Cable said it's too early to talk about Russell's future. Players say they have no idea what the future holds for Russell.
Therefore, it's anyone's guess as to what becomes of Russell once his third NFL season ends and the prospect of his fourth takes center stage in organizational meetings.
"There are a lot of things supposed to be a certain way in this world, but they're not," Cable said of Russell's slow development earlier this season. "Where he is, where he goes with it will, ultimately, be up to him. How good he wants to be (depends on) how much he's willing to, ultimately, put into it."
Interviews with several players and people within the organization, none of whom would speak for attribution, put forth the following scenarios concerning Russell's Raiders future:
That process kicked into gear this past offseason, when Cable promoted Paul Hackett to quarterbacks coach, and the Raiders created a quarterback school.
The Raiders attempted that with Jeff Garcia this season, but Garcia never quite warmed to the idea of being the backup or Russell's mentor.
Bruce Gradkowski replaced Russell and has fared better in his two starts than Russell did in his nine this season. It's conceivable the Raiders will attempt to re-sign him and keep him as their starter as long as he plays well.
At this rate, the Raiders figure to have a top-10 draft pick to dangle as trade bait, along with enticing young players such as running backs Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, as well as veteran defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
There's almost no scenario that points to Russell's being jettisoned.
For one, Davis has a long history of being patient with draft picks.
Several people within the organization point to cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, safety Michael Huff and guard Robert Gallery struggling early in their NFL careers and finally taking off in their fourth seasons.
Davis made his feelings known about Russell the day he fired Lane Kiffin and named Cable the interim coach Sept. 30, 2008.
Davis displayed on an overhead projector a letter he wrote Kiffin in which he said: "I realize that you did not want to draft JaMarcus Russell. He is a great player. Get over it."
Davis also said that day: "Coaches sometimes draft players, they make the pick, and they run from it. I believe that there are players, we live with them, they got to play for us and no matter what you think of Al, we got to love them. That's the way this world is."
Secondly, Davis no doubt has noticed the rebirth of the 49ers' Alex Smith and the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young this season after many had written them off as first-round busts.
The Raiders signed Russell to a six-year contract that guaranteed him $32 million as the No. 1 pick of the 2007 NFL draft — he earned a base salary of $7.8 million this season.
The Raiders could cut Russell after this season and take just a modest salary-cap hit.
He is slated to earn base salaries of $9.45 million next season, $9.35 million in 2011 and $5.83 million in 2012.
By comparison, the Raiders are paying Gradkowski $535,000 this season and No. 3 quarterback Charlie Frye $620,000. Both players' contracts expire at season's end.
The sticking point could come if the Raiders ask Russell to restructure his contract to better reflect his current status. If Russell refuses, that might force the Raiders' hand once and for all.
Notes: Trevor Scott will start at weak-side linebacker in place of Thomas Howard for the second straight game. In turn, Howard will replace Sam Williams as the starting strong-side linebacker. "... Defensive end Greg Ellis (knee) missed practice once again Thursday and is questionable for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. Linebacker David Nixon was sent home because of an illness. He is questionable for Sunday, as well. "... Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward issued a strange kind of guarantee for Sunday's game. "The playoffs officially begin for us this week," he said. "You lose, we're pretty much out of it. We know what's at stake. Our playoff season begins this weekend. This team knows, if we lose we're pretty much out of it."