HOUSTON — Raiders coach Jack Del Rio walked down a long gray, cold hallway in the basement of NRG Stadium where his young, eager Raiders had just lost to the Houston Texans 27-14, where they had been eliminated from the playoffs. He entered an interview room but hesitated. He didn’t know where to go.
Someone pointed out a small, makeshift stage with a podium and a microphone, and Del Rio walked where he was supposed to walk. His eyes were wet. Maybe he had been crying. Or maybe his eyes get wet late in the day. And then he started to talk. And talk.
He usually is what you call buttoned-down, close to the vest. Those expressions. But now he was talkative and confessional. “We got off to such a great start,” he said of the season, his voice a lament. “It just came to an abrupt end the last two weeks.”
He lingered over the word “abrupt.” Said it several times in the next few minutes. Abrupt. What had happened to him and his team was, well, really abrupt. They were the darlings of the NFL, a young team on the rise, a young team that could — should? — win its division and get a first-round playoff bye. And then the wheels came off the car, and the car crashed into a ditch and turned over, its wheels spinning.
All because of quarterback Derek Carr, Carr with his broken leg. No blame anywhere. Just one of those things. One of those NFL things. You’re up and then you’re down.
Del Rio kept talking. “It’s just not what we want,” he said, knowing what he wanted had become impossible. “Not what we were looking for. Obviously, we’d like to continue on, and we’re not going to be doing that.”
Someone asked why he didn’t remove starting quarterback Connor Cook from the game at halftime, Cook a rookie starting his first-ever NFL game and this game a playoff game. Del Rio said the coaches discussed replacing Cook with Matt McGloin, another backup to Carr. But they all decided not to change. Didn’t think things would improve. Between a rock and a hard place. No wonder Del Rio had wet eyes.
Someone asked how Cook had played.
Big sigh from Del Rio. Monumental sigh. “I mean, it’s his first start, on the road, in a playoff game, against the No. 1-ranked defense. It’s a tough draw for him. We had hopes we would be able to do enough around him so he wouldn’t be called on to do as much. And he ended up throwing 45 times in the game. That’s not the design, I can assure you. We’d like to pass it 20, 25 times. It got out of whack there. Once you’re behind like that playing catch up, you can’t get what you want to get done.”
In other words, deep in his soul, Del Rio knew he hardly stood a chance.
Not with a kid playing quarterback.
Cook’s quarterback rating was 30, which qualifies as ghastly. He didn’t convert a third down until the fourth quarter. He threw three interceptions. A nightmare game.
The first interception was a classic of the “Pick” genre. Cook threw a pass in the left flat. The Texans’ great defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, batted the ball up into the air, ran after the ball, kept bouncing it into the air like someone playing volleyball. He ran the ball inside the 10-yard line and, of course, the Texans scored a touchdown on the next play.
I am trying to make this column positive because the Raiders deserve positive, nothing less. But I am not positive about their offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Not in this game. No way the rookie quarterback should have been testing Clowney. Challenging Clowney.
Cook had tested Clowney earlier and Clowney had knocked away that pass. It was Musgrave’s job to give Cook easy passes — like screen passes, like quick play-action passes. Build up Cook’s confidence. The run game sure didn’t work. Why settle for no yards or losses on runs? Give Cook easy-to-complete passes for short yardage. Move the chains. Musgrave never got the memo in this game and he made Cook look worse than he is.
And one other thing. When the game still was a game — kind of — Cook’s receivers did not help him. Michael Crabtree has been a star for the Raiders and he deserves praise. But he caught only two balls in the game and got called for offensive pass interference. Bad look. He could not get separation from Houston defensive backs, who had no fear of him. Maybe he was tired. Pretty much the same goes for Amari Cooper. Both hurt Cook.
Cook came to the interview room after Del Rio.
He had huddled with a public-relations guy, obviously getting a quick tutorial on how to talk with the media. He is so young — 23. He wore a baseball cap over his brow and his eyes were in shadow.
“I expected better,” he said. He was confessing just as Del Rio had confessed. He was blaming himself.
“It falls on my shoulders,” he said, “being able to deliver very accurate balls to my receivers.” He blamed himself for bad passes. He blamed himself for the Clowney interception. “That was me trying to make a play. I’ve just got to be safe and throw it away.”
He blamed himself for overthrowing Cooper, a pass the Texans intercepted. “I tried to throw it too hard. I got excited seeing where he was and just sailed it.”
I felt so bad for him taking all the blame. I said he’s just a beginner. Certainly, that’s a factor.
“Maybe,” he said in a sad voice. “I was going to come in here and I was going to play really well. I was confident in the game plan. I have high expectations for myself, and to come in here and play like that is not a good feeling.”
Someone asked what he learned from the game. He laughed a rueful laugh. “To be more accurate. Don’t sail it over guys’ heads. Get rid of the ball quicker. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult to play quarterback. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff. You’ve got to prepare your butt off. I thought I did that. It’s hard to go out there and compete. It’s a very fast game.”
The weight of the game on his shoulders.
Let me end with something Del Rio said. A reporter asked if a team has to go through this stage — stark elimination — before it can grow into a championship outfit.
Del Rio shook his head. “If you could skip it,” he said, “I’d love to skip it.”
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.