Despite losing their top 2 options at quarterback before Saturday’s Wild Card game against the Houston Texans, the Oakland Raiders should find themselves in good hands with rookie Connor Cook leading the way.
After losing franchise QB Derek Carr to a broken fibula, and backup Matt McGloin to a shoulder injury, the Raiders were left with no choice but to promote Cook and give him an opportunity under centre. He’ll become the first QB in the Super Bowl era to make his 1st career start in the postseason, but he looks to be up for the challenge.
It would be a shame for the Raiders’ season to come to a sudden end on Saturday, considering how well they’ve played. Finishing with a 12-4 record, Oakland earned its 1st playoff berth since 2002, and with Carr leading the way – it seemed like they were well on their way to re-living their Super Bowl-contending days during the early stages of the 21st century. They’re in a much different position now, but with the Raiders having a winner in Cook ready to fill in, they still have a solid chance of winning their 1st playoff game in 14 years.
Even though he was a 4th-round 2016 NFL draft pick, Cook has proven that he’s been a winner since his days at Michigan State. He was one of the most consistent QBs at the collegiate level during his 3 years as a starter, finishing with a 34-5 record during that time span.
In addition, the 23-year-old never threw more than 9 interceptions while posting at least 22 touchdowns in each season – including a 24 TD and 7 INT campaign in his final year in college. During his tenure as a Spartan, Cook was well-known for his ability to perform well in big games – capturing 2 Big Ten Championships, and winning game-MVP in both of those contests. He might not be at the collegiate level anymore, but Cook’s mental strength and physical attributes give him, and the Raiders, a great chance of walking out of Houston with a win by the end of Saturday afternoon.
The Raiders didn’t have to wait until Saturday for Cook to showcase his talents, with the rookie QB getting his first shot on an NFL field after McGloin went down at the end of the 2nd quarter last Sunday against the Denver Broncos. He wouldn’t disappoint in his relief appearance, playing safe and making almost all the right throws against the Broncos’ no.1 pass defence.
His mental strength and poise would especially be on display during the 3rd quarter. With his team trailing 17-0 in the beginning of the frame, Cook would try to create the Raiders’ first solid offensive possession. After completing a 13-yard pass to Michael Crabtree, Cook would get sacked by Shane Ray and lose the football with 13:07 remaining in the 3rd.
The Broncos would recover, and take over – leaving the QB a little distraught before he got off to the sideline. The Broncos would score a TD on the ensuing possession, pushing the lead to 24, while putting Cook and the Raiders in an even worse position going forward. Thankfully for the Raiders, Cook wouldn’t let his fumble bother him, instead he bounced back 2 possessions later – connecting with 2 different receivers, before hitting Amari Cooper with a solid back-shoulder throw for a 32-yard TD to trim the Broncos’ 24-6 lead with 3:09 left in the quarter.
It would be the only score of the game for the Raiders, with them losing by the aforementioned score, but the 6-foot-4, 217-pound QB showed that he was resilient and ready for the challenge – despite playing in one of the league’s most hostile environments at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. It was a gutsy performance by Cook – playing in a stadium deprived of oxygen, and a rowdy Denver crowd – while trying to prove his place within the Raiders’ organization.
Even though it was a small sample of experience, Cook showed that he has the potential to be a starter in the NFL. Against a Super Bowl-winning Broncos defence, the rookie showed up and delivered, completing 14 of his 21 pass attempts (66%), to go along with 150 passing yards, a touchdown, a fumble and a quarterback rating of 83.4 in just over a half of play. He would also throw an interception late in the game at the 6:15 minute mark of the 4th quarter, but at that point the Raiders were already down 24-6, without any hope for a comeback.
On Saturday, Cook is going to need to have a similar performance, minus the fumble and interception, against the Texans’ no.1 ranked defence. Thankfully, he’ll be going up against an unpredictable field general in Brock Osweiler – which should allow him to get some solid opportunities down the stretch of the game. With Osweiler bound to make some mistakes with his unpredictable play, Cook will need to make sure that he can just protect the ball – helping them retain possession and stay in control of the game.
At first, it seemed like this team was headed for the worst possible outcome. They lost their MVP-candidate QB in Carr, and it seemed they wouldn’t be able to do anything going forward. With Cook’s arrival, the Raiders’ worst-case scenario has turned into a flash of hope for the franchise. Carr said that he would have a chance to return to the Raiders, if they were able to make the Super Bowl, something that would only be possible with Cook under centre.
Expecting the rookie QB to guide them to the Super Bowl would be unrealistic, but if anything this opportunity will give Cook the chance to show another NFL team that he’s good enough to be their starter as soon as next season. Even if he were to pull off a magical run in the postseason, the Raiders would be wise to keep Carr as the cornerstone of their franchise – while allowing Cook to utilize his potential on a team that doesn’t have an elite QB.
Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio “trusts him”, and at this point, all of Raider nation should as well. He has all of the tools to be a successful QB in this league, and more importantly, he’s a winner. Regardless of how things may look, Oakland shouldn’t be too worried about Saturday – with Cook taking the reins to start the 2016 postseason.
All stats for this article are from NFL.com
You can follow Peter Ash on Twitter @peterash_