ALAMEDA — After the day’s stretching was done Thursday, the Raiders players splintered into position groups and gravitated to various corners of the practice field here at team headquarters. The quarterbacks and receivers moved together to one isolated spot for some routes “on air” (that is, with no defenders present). And it was Connor Cook, wearing a red No. 8 shell, who dropped back and made the first throw.
It was a subtle marker, but it represented a huge shift in the pecking order. For better or worse, Cook is being asked do what no quarterback in the past 50 years has attempted — to make his first NFL start in a postseason game — when the Raiders face the Texans in an AFC wild-card game at Houston on Saturday.
“I think there’s a lot of unknown there, right?” Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio said Wednesday. “I think we’ll get to watch it play out. Let’s see him play. Honestly, we haven’t seen him a lot. We saw half a game, or thereabouts, against Denver last week. That was pretty good. That part was pretty good. Small sample, pretty good.”
A larger sample size is likely to come Saturday, and the implications for the Raiders are significant. This is their first playoff appearance since 2002. It will either end abruptly in Houston or extend for at least another week, and the rookie quarterback’s performance will have a large bearing on the outcome.
At the risk of contradicting Del Rio, last week’s small sample was mixed. True, Cook moved the ball better than Matt McGloin, who started the game in the absence of franchise QB Derek Carr but left with a (non-throwing) shoulder injury in the second quarter.
“He was real mature,” tight end Clive Walford said of Cook, who hadn’t so much as suited up for an NFL game before last Sunday. “He came in the huddle very confident and seemed like he knew what he was doing. That made us have more confidence in him.”
But Cook, 23, also fumbled twice and threw an interception, and the Raiders lost 24-6, losing their grip on the AFC West title and forfeiting a playoff bye.
This week, Del Rio and his assistants are emphasizing that it takes a village to play football, and that the Raiders’ fortunes in Houston will not begin and end with one player. But they know the truth. It will be hard for this team to survive into Round 2 if Connor Cook plays poorly. That’s why much of the brainpower this week has been devoted to one specific task: getting the rookie up to speed.
“We’ve had a good week,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said Thursday. “It’s been condensed. Had a good day today and we’re looking forward to having more preparation, of course, once we get down there tomorrow and even the day of the game.”
Certainly, the Raiders believe they have a lot to work with in Cook.
They drafted him with the second pick in the fourth round last April, and the traits that attracted the team then are the ones that give them hope now. Among those are Cook’s physical parameters. He’s 6-foot-4, 217 pounds, and the deep throw has never been a problem for him.
“He’s a big and tall quarterback,” wide receiver Andre Holmes said. “It’s gonna be easy to see him. He has a good arm, has good arm strength. And he wants to win.”
Another strength the Raiders are hoping to lean on this week is Cook’s big-game experience. His second appearance at Michigan State as a freshman came in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where he came on in relief and helped lead the Spartans to a win against TCU. Along the way to setting most of the career passing records at MSU, he was a two-time MVP of the Big Ten championship game, offensive MVP of the 2014 Rose Bowl (a victory against Stanford) and a winner against Baylor in the 2015 Cotton Bowl.
On the other hand, when the Spartans were selected to play mighty Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal last year, they were thumped 38-0. Cook completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes (19 for 39) and threw two interceptions.
There were also whispers about his leadership coming out of college.
A post-draft story in the Detroit News said this: “Teams view Cook as arrogant, a player whose personality flaws could be an issue in a locker room full of alpha males.”
He was not voted team captain as a senior at Michigan State, a slight that some NFL teams viewed as a red flag.
This week, Raiders quarterbacks coach Todd Downing, who graduated from the University of Minnesota, said he had reached out to Big Ten contacts before the draft, and got nothing but positive reviews of Cook.
“A ‘C’ on your chest doesn’t define a leader,” Downing said. “The reputation you carry, your character, the way you work, that’s what makes a leader, and I think unequivocally people said he was a good leader and a good teammate. … I bet you there are guys in this locker room right now that would call themselves leaders on this team, and they aren’t one of our captains.”
Downing said Cook has been a willing pupil all season long.
“He’s really grown intellectually in understanding our system and NFL concepts and defenses,” the assistant said. “He’s really kind of ridden the coattails or waterskied behind Derek and Matt from that standpoint. They prepare so well that for a guy like Connor to walk into a room where guys prepare the right way is a very big advantage for him.”
And now the crash course has begun in earnest. Actually, it started before the Denver game. With Carr recovering from a broken fibula, Cook was on the 53-man game-day roster for the first time this season.
“I was nervous last week just being activated,” he said Wednesday. “Being inactive all season long and finally knowing that I was one play away, I was preparing like I was the guy. So I was nervous going into the Denver game just like I’ll have the nerves going into this game.”
The difference this time is that the Raiders know Cook will be playing, so he’s getting the first-team repetitions in practice. Left tackle Donald Penn admitted after the Broncos loss that he hadn’t heard Cook’s voice in the huddle until that day. And Cook said that prior to Week 17, the only chemistry he’d had with starting wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree was some work on air and a little spot catch.
By Saturday, the Raiders hope, everyone will be feeling more comfortable together. Cook probably isn’t doing anything Carr wouldn’t have done to prepare for the Texans. He’s just doing more of it all — more film study, more sit-downs with Downing and Musgrave, and, especially, more throwing.
“Just getting as many reps as possible, reps on the side,” Cook said. “If it’s not during team period, if we’re in the special teams period, getting more and more reps, just practicing stuff, repetition after repetition.”
The trick is bringing an inexperienced quarterback up to speed without making his head swim. When Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney is bearing down on him, the coaches want Cook reacting, not processing.
“You don’t want to overload him and kind of saturate his brain too much right now,” Downing said. “But you certainly want to get as much work done as you can. So it’s been a fine balance of working through some stuff with him. But he’s a sharp guy, he can retain a lot of information, so we’ve kind of been taking it day by day with him.”
As Del Rio put it: “There’s only so much you can catch up all at once. At the end of the day, you don’t try and have him go around the clock here. He wouldn’t be at his best.”
Downing and Musgrave said Cook should have the Raiders’ full playbook at his disposal this week, though both emphasized the importance of identifying plays that suit Cook’s skill set. Presumably, that would include medium-to-deep timing throws from the pocket.
This trial-by-fire would be a tall order under any circumstances. Making it even more challenging for Cook is the opponent.
The Texans wound up ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (301.3 yards per game) and No. 2 in pass defense (201.6 yards) in 2016.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell is aggressive in his blitzing and unpredictable in his coverage packages, and you can bet he’ll be throwing some twists at the rookie.
And yet Downing didn’t sound anxious as he spoke to a couple reporters Wednesday. Heading into the playoffs with a neophyte quarterback is less than ideal. But it’s a lot better than missing the playoffs altogether, as the Raiders had the previous 13 seasons.
“People keep calling this a tough situation for Connor,” Downing said. “I think Connor looks at it as a pretty awesome opportunity. And that’s the biggest difference between a guy you can rally behind as a team, and a guy that you might kind of look at sideways and think, ‘You can’t get it done.’ To Connor, this isn’t a tough situation. He gets to go play in the NFL playoffs, which is a special thing.”
You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.