IF THE RAIDERS benched their franchise quarterback and no one was at the Coliseum to witness it, did it really happen? Yes, emphatically so.

JaMarcus Russell had such a dismal (yet familiar) start to Sunday's 38-0 shutout loss to the New York Jets that coach Tom Cable couldn't even wait to halftime to send in backup Bruce Gradkowski.

We bring up the halftime measuring stick because even Shaun Hill made it through the first half of the 49ers' loss Sunday before Alex Smith entered.

Russell accounted for three turnovers on four series in the first quarter. As for his personal accountability in his failure to develop as even an acceptable quarterback, he failed to place blame on himself alone.

When I asked him at his locker what's been the biggest obstacle in his development, he replied: "Up and down. Up and down."

As in the team's consistency, or his?

"I don't think it's me, personally. I really don't," Russell replied. "It's been a bad combination of one guy not doing something right one time, one guy another time.

"Personally, I don't think so. Do you?"

After a brief pause, I replied: "At times."

I could have said it was Al Davis' fault for drafting him on to a bad team, or the young wide receivers fault for dropping so many passes, or the line's inability to block him adequately. But Russell indeed has been at fault more often than his teammates' during games. As for the overall state of the franchise, that's a story for another day (prediction: Tuesday's papers).


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Russell's exchange with me wasn't a heated one, of course. He's even too cool to have an angry tiff with a skeptical columnist. He's right that it's not all his fault. But he needs to take some accountability and show he deserves to remain the starting quarterback.

Cable declared that Russell will start next Sunday's game at San Diego and that there is "no issue" in regards to a quarterback controversy. Of course there isn't. If Gradkowski had done what Smith did — throw three touchdown passes in relief — then Russell's job might be in serious jeopardy.

Russell said he was "shocked at first" to get benched because he had never been in that situation. But the situation was so dire that Cable executed what he termed a "very difficult" task of calling in Gradkowski from the bullpen.

"For the first time, he was really out of sorts early in the game," Cable said.

"Actually, I wasn't," Russell countered.

Cable claimed right out the gate that Russell failed to line up his teammates in the proper formation on the first play and check the ball down as required. The result: Russell got sacked and fumbled the ball, and the Jets quickly converted that turnover into the first of their five touchdowns.

Booed by a half-empty Coliseum crowd every time he trotted out to the field, Russell played one more series early in the second quarter and came out for good after that series ended with an incomplete third-down pass.

Russell's line: 6 of 11 for 61 yards with two interceptions. He got sacked once, on the Raiders' first snap as new right tackle Khalif Barnes couldn't stop Calvin Pace from forcing a fumble.

Russell seemed like the only one in the Coliseum who didn't know he was getting pulled in favor of Grakowski. Russell took two steps on to the field with the Raiders offense before glancing 20 yards to his left and seeing coach Tom Cable send in Gradkowski.

Rather than go into a deep sulk, Russell seemed (no surprise) cool about his demotion. He seemed to encourage Gradkowski throughout the game with sideline chats, and Russell waved a white towel in support when Gradkowski dashed for a 20-yard gain to midfield in the third quarter.

Is it time to throw in the proverbial towel on Russell? No, simply because the Raiders' season is already a 2-5 wreck and Al Davis surely will give more chances to his 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick.

This season has been devoted from Day 1 to see if Russell could develop into a franchise-carrying quarterback. So far, he has failed. And it didn't really take until Week 7 to figure out that.

As Sunday's rout dragged on, Russell took his familiar seat on the right side of the Raiders' bench near the water cooler. He did so in a familiar ski cap, as if he were sitting on a Lake Tahoe chair lift.

These Raiders are in no way, shape or form Russell's team. Who's are they? Al Davis', of course.

Davis has tried addressing the dearth of offensive talent over recent years. Getting shut out at home — after a defensive-oriented upset a week earlier here against the Philadelphia Eagles — has to be demoralizing to the Raiders.

If fumbling on the first play wasn't a clue how his day would go, Russell gave the Jets all the momentum they would need with an embarrassing interception on his third series. Backpedaling about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and without any defender in his face, Russell tossed a perfect pass to a wide open defender, Jets safety Jim Leonhard, who returned the gift 44 yards to the Raiders 4 where Russell helped knock him out of bounds.

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez scored two plays later on a 3-yard run up the middle for a 14-0 lead, and Russell quickly returned the ball to Sanchez on the ensuing series. The Raiders reached the Jets 33 when Russell decided to throw a lob to the end zone, where cornerback Darrelle Revis' tight coverage of Todd Watkins resulted in an interception with 1:24 left in the first quarter.

"I thought I gave (Watkins) a chance to make a play ... a 50-50 chance," Russell said. "I thought I made a throw where he should go up and have a chance at the ball."

The better play Sunday might have been for the telecast to cut away to the "Heidi" movie like it did decades ago.

Instead, the Raiders suffered their third lobsided loss in four games, and this one is officially their worst ever at home.

This also brought out Russell's worst, both during the game and afterward when he failed to tone down his overconfident, all-is-well-with-me ways.