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.”