ALAMEDA — The Raiders made it official Wednesday: Rookie Connor Cook will take the field at Houston for an AFC wild-card game on Saturday, becoming the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his initial NFL start in the postseason.
Also official: The Raiders will have to do a lot more to help him than they did in a regular-season-ending loss at Denver last Sunday.
When star QB Derek Carr broke his fibula in a Week 16 win against the Colts, everyone from head coach Jack Del Rio to the Oakland special teamers agreed that all concerned would have to step up their games to compensate for the loss of the MVP candidate. It was true when it looked like Matt McGloin would be Carr’s replacement, and it’s true now that Cook has taken over in the wake of an injury to McGloin’s non-throwing shoulder.
Running the ball effectively was a big part of the plan. Pick up solid gains on the ground and Oakland could dissuade defenses from going after the quarterback with abandon, while keeping an inexperienced passer out of third-and-long situations.
Then came the Broncos game, and the Raiders ran for a paltry 57 yards on 16 carries in a 24-6 loss that bounced them out of first place in the AFC West and sent them on the road for the wild-card round.
Considering these guys rushed for a season-best 218 yards and three touchdowns on a robust 43 carries the first time they faced Denver, in a 30-20 victory at Oakland on Oct. 9, the lack of production last weekend was puzzling. And it clearly got under Del Rio’s skin.
“We didn’t run it the way we need to run it,” he said at his Monday press conference after watching film of the game. “And to me, we didn’t run it enough. I mean, Latavius (Murray) ends up with five carries. How does that happen? It wasn’t a great job of executing by the Oakland Raiders.”
That was as close as Del Rio has come all season to criticizing Bill Musgrave’s play calling. And you can bet the offensive coordinator received the message.
The most obvious explanation for Oakland’s regression on the ground is a different approach by the Broncos. It would make sense that with Carr out of the game, Denver would load up against the run and dare the understudies to throw. But Del Rio dismissed the notion.
“I think they were geared up similarly to how they were geared up the last time, you know?” he said. “The bottom line is they got off blocks, we didn’t execute the blocks as well. The timing wasn’t quite as good and there were some opportunities for it to be a whole lot better.”
The truth is, the Raiders have been strangely inconsistent on the ground all year. They exploded for 210 yards against Indianapolis, 167 against the Saints and 155 against the Falcons. But against the Panthers, they had 55 yards on 30 carries. At Baltimore, it was 62 yards.
In fact, the Raiders didn’t have a single game this year in which they ran for between 90 and 120 yards. There was no in-between for Musgrave’s offense.
“Overall, it’s almost like an inconsistency of identity,” said Lincoln Kennedy, the former Raiders offensive tackle who now handles sideline reports for the team’s radio broadcasts. “Right now to me you’ve got two entirely different run games. If you want to use (shot)gun runs, you’re gonna have to use either (DeAndre) Washington or Jalen Richard, who are smaller backs, quicker backs. If you’re going to use a power, man-type of blocking, you’re going to use Latavius Murray, who’s better suited out of an I-back formation, a more traditional formation.”
The Raiders have proven their ability to move the ball in either alignment. Murray wound up with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2016 despite missing two games, and Washington and Richard, both rookies, averaged 5.4 and 5.9 yards per carry, respectively.
But according to Kennedy, the Raiders have become predictable in the deployment of their backs.
If Murray sets up deep with an extra offensive tackle on the line, it’s probably going to be a handoff to the power side. If it’s Washington or Richard lining up in shotgun, a pass is more likely, and any run will probably be blocked in a way that’s easy to decipher.
“They’ve got tendencies with personnel that teams are beginning to catch up on, because we who cover the team are able to see it as well when they come in,” Kennedy said. “And they have yet to really break those tendencies.”
Injuries have been a factor. No. 1 right tackle Menelik Watson missed much of the regular season with groin and calf strains, and No. 2 Austin Howard battled some ailments, too.
Kennedy points out another problem: Since Lee Smith went on the injured reserve after Week 4, the Raiders haven’t had an old-school tight end who can seal the edge on a running play. Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera can get open and make catches; neither is a great blocker.
And now the worst news of all. To advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, Oakland has to get past the Texans. And the first time these teams played, at Mexico City in Week 11, the Raiders had their worst running performance of the season, with 30 yards on 20 carries. Carr overcame the limited attack by throwing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a 27-20 comeback win.
Asked what happened in that first meeting, right guard Gabe Jackson said: “They make adjustments, like other teams do. We made adjustments, too, during that game. And toward the end we were able to do some things that we wanted to do.”
Jackson has a point. In the first three quarters of the contest at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, the Raiders totaled 11 yards on 12 carries. They were stonewalled.
In the fourth quarter, though, they picked up a tolerable 21 yards on six attempts, discounting two kneel-downs by Carr to end the game. Oakland got the ball with a seven-point lead and 3:02 remaining and was able to run out the clock.
The key this week might be figuring out the proper adjustments in a timely fashion. Building a lead for Connor Cook seems like a much better idea than asking him to lead a fourth-quarter comeback in his first NFL start.
You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.