ALAMEDA — Amari Cooper was not in a talkative mood Wednesday as he stood in front of his locker at the Raiders’ practice facility. Which I’m guessing brings Cooper’s streak of consecutive non-chatty days to, oh, 8,496 – the number of days he’s been alive.
Cooper is never rude or biting in interview situations. He doesn’t brush people off like teammate Michael Crabtree or intentionally confound them like Marshawn Lynch. He just, it would seem, finds it painful to talk in a group setting. So when a handful of reporters asked Cooper about the dropped passes that have plagued him through the first three games the 2017 season, we left without learning much.
How do you approach these miscues, Amari?
“I try to move forward. Obviously, I like to look back on ’em and see how I dropped the ball, and then try to fix it.”
Are you frustrated to see this problem arise again?
“It can be a little frustrating, but just have to go and fix it.”
Do the drops have anything at all to do with the extra muscle you put on this year?
So there you are. The guy who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl appearances in his first two years in the NFL, the one who ranked eighth in the league last season with 1,153 receiving yards, suddenly is having trouble catching the football. And the reason is obscure.
What we do know is that we’ve seen this trend before.
As a rookie in 2015, Cooper showed all the traits that made him the fourth overall pick in the draft, the ones that have gotten people raving about him in the NFL: the precociously precise route-running, the acceleration after the catch, the ability to high-point the ball in traffic. But he had a lot of drops, too.
Drops are notoriously hard to quantify. So many botched pass plays are a combination of less-than-flawless protection, a slightly off-line pass and the failure of the catcher to reel in the ball. Assigning ultimate blame is a slippery task. That noted, the website SportingCharts.com had Cooper tied for second in the NFL with 10 drops (in 130 targets) in 2015.
It was too many. They held Cooper back, and held the Raiders offense back.
In 2016, his second season, the error rate went way down. SportingCharts said Cooper dropped three passes in 132 targets that year. (Meanwhile, Crabtree led the league with nine, but that’s another story.) No, Cooper wasn’t perfect. He biffed a wide-open deep ball at Tampa Bay on Oct. 30, for example. But he looked more relaxed, and thus more dangerous.
This year, the beat writers noticed some additional muscle bulging out of Cooper’s jersey when he showed up to training camp. Everyone figured the strength would be good for him, would help him get off of jams at the line of scrimmage. And with another year alongside Carr, plus the addition of Lynch and tight end Jared Cook, Raiders fans braced for a breakout season from No. 89.
It hasn’t gone like that at all. Cooper caught a touchdown pass from Carr at Tennessee in Week 1. But overall he has just 10 receptions for 101 yards in three weeks. To put that in perspective, Cooper averaged 66.9 yards per game in Year 1 and 72.1 in Year 2; in 2017, he’s down to 33.7 yards per game. Carr’s passer rating when throwing to Cooper is an unsightly 53.0.