The Oakland Raiders didn’t want rookie quarterback Connor Cook to start Saturday’s playoff game — the team’s first since 2002.
That job belonged to Derek Carr.
And then it belonged to Matt McGloin.
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And after injuries to both, in back-to-back weeks to end the regular season, it now belongs to Cook.
While Raiders fans might be depressed having to see a rookie quarterback make his first NFL start in the team’s most important game in a decade, the job certainly could have fallen into less-capable hands.
McGloin’s, for instance.
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The Raiders didn’t stand a chance with the veteran backup out of Penn State at the helm, and that was made wildly apparent in the Raiders’ Week 17 loss to the Broncos. McGloin, before he was pulled from the game because of injury, averaged 1.91 yards per pass attempt. The elite Denver defense knew exactly what kind of throws to bait him into and he looked woefully unable to make them pay.
Had McGloin finished the Week 17 game the way he started it, there would have been calls for Cook to start this Wild-Card Round playoff game without having a snap to his name. McGloin was worse than bad despite playing behind a great offensive line with strong receivers and a worthwhile run game.
There was no excuse for him to look as poor as he did last Sunday. McGloin might have experience, but what’s that matter if he can’t make the plays?
We don’t know what Cook will do in his first NFL start – he has 31 regular-season snaps to his name, all coming in relief of McGloin last week — but his resume has certainly earned the Michigan State product some benefit of the doubt. His ceiling for Saturday is certainly higher than McGloin’s was, and in a scenario like this, what does it matter if the floor might be a bit lower?
Cook could have easily been a first-round pick, but likely fell to No. 100 in the 2016 NFL Draft for reasons beyond his play. There were concerns about his character: the fact that he had never been named a team captain despite being Michigan State’s starting quarterback for three years, his fathers’… let’s go with temperament, his interaction with Archie Griffin, and his poor play against Alabama in last year’s College Football Playoff. But the fact of the matter is that Cook can spin the ball with the best of ’em, and he enters his first NFL start with plenty of big-time college experience. Making your first NFL start in the postseason is less than advantageous (Cook is the first rookie in NFL history to do so) but there is one big advantage to it: The opponents don’t know what’s coming.
The Texans are already gearing up to tear the rookie’s head off — something that makes perfect sense considering that Garrett Gilbert is the backup (Gilbert’s NFL.com player page makes it easy to see why it’d benefit the Texans to have him in the game).
“I hope we blitz him all game,” Jadeveon Clowney said this week. “We just have to put a lot of pressure on him, make him throw some bad balls, force some turnovers and try to get our offense in good field position.”
That plan would certainly work against McGloin, who wanted to dink and dunk in a Raiders offense that wants to stretch the defense with deep passes to the boundaries, but it might backfire against Cook.
That’s because the rookie can make all the throws necessary to run the Raiders’ offense, in full, and unlike so many rookie quarterbacks transitioning to the NFL — like the No. 1 overall pick who played up the road from the Raiders’ facility in Berkeley, Jared Goff — Cook did it in a pro-style offense in college. Cook has shown that he can keep an NFL defense in check — if only for a moment.
You could see it in his touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the third quarter of that game against the Broncos, when he stepped into a throw against pressure and placed a ball perfectly over the highest-rated cornerback in the NFL, Chris Davis, along the sideline.
That’s a first-round throw. That’s the kind of talent that made the Raiders trade up to No. 100. They leapfrogged the Dallas Cowboys, who preferred Cook to Dak Prescott (Cook wasn’t the only quarterback like that…), to land him.
Cook isn’t going into Saturday’s game cold, like in Week 17. He’s not going to have the full playbook at his disposal, but if the Texans want to blitz him, he’ll know where the ball should go.
It just comes down to executing the throws, and a large part of executing the throws is simply having the gall to release the ball.
Cook was called a lot of things by anonymous NFL scouts in the lead-up to the draft — “cocky”, “overconfident” and “arrogant” were the most frequently tossed around terms — but in a must-win situation that no one expects him to win, against a great defense and counter to an offense that isn’t exactly going to blow the lid off, isn’t that what the Raiders need?
Dieter Kurtenbach is a senior writer at Fox Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @dkurtenbach.