It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It was just a few weeks ago that a Super Bowl berth—a storybook ending to their return to relevance—was within reach for the Raiders. Teams can compete after losing running backs to injury, or linebackers, or offensive tackles. But not quarterbacks. Not this late, and not this many times.
MVP candidate Derek Carr and his backup, Matt McGloin, went down in successive weeks. Now it’s up to rookie Connor Cook, a fourth-rounder out of Michigan State, to salvage a 12-4 regular season.
In the gloom of the visitor’s post-game locker room after a Week 17 loss to Denver, linebacker Bruce Irvin, visibly under-the-weather, shot back at yet another question about Carr’s absence. “We can’t keep talking about Derek, bro. Derek is gone. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to win. Ain’t no sense bringing up Derek.”
So let's talk about Cook. For many of his teammates, Cook's relief appearance in a 24-6 loss at Denver was an introduction to the man. All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack laughed, quietly and with resignation, when asked how well he knew the rookie. Exactly what sort of conversations have they shared in 2016?
“Light ones,” Mack said, chuckling. “Nothing too in-depth.”
The strokes of absurdity that have painted the end for the Raiders are, in a way, funny from the right angle. An MVP candidate breaks his leg in garbage time of the 15th game, and the play in question happens to be the only sack his left tackle, Donald Penn, allowed all season. Then his veteran backup injures his shoulder in the 16th game, a loss that puts a four-loss team on the road, in Houston, on wild-card weekend for a Saturday tilt. Cook, who hadn’t even dressed for a game until the regular-season finale, will become the first quarterback of the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the postseason. He won’t even get the standard six days of prep for his first start in the NFL.
It is fair to wonder what impact it’s all having on the psyche of a Raiders team that, on Sunday, gave up 143 rushing to a Broncos team that hadn’t rushed for that many since Oct. 24.
“Its just a devastating situation,” says former Raiders Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim Plunkett, who does radio and television for the team. “It’s a blow to the franchise, the team, the players, the coaches. You’re losing literally your best player on offense.
“Now it could be better if you have an experienced backup, but we have two young guys.”
Plunkett himself supplanted a starter during the 1980 season, when Dan Pastorini broke his leg in September. Plunkett went on to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory, and did it again three years later. The differences are obvious: Plunkett got 11 starts under his belt before the 1980 playoffs, and by then he’d been in the league for eight years.
The more apt Cook comparison is Ryan Lindley. In 2014, Lindley stepped in for the Arizona Cardinals after injuries to Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton. Lindley got the start in the final two games of the regular season and was promptly dismissed in the playoffs by Cam Newton’s Panthers.
It’s no coincidence that after 16 weeks of violence, the healthiest teams typically go deepest in the playoffs. Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele was a rookie on the 2012 Ravens, who had several key starters including Ray Lewis return to health at the conclusion of the regular season. That team limped through the regular season, and lost four out of their last five before running the table and winning Super Bowl VLXII.
“This is basically the opposite situation,” Osemele says.
Instead of Joe Flacco, the Raiders have Cook, who fell to the fourth round after many pegged him as a first-round prospect at the beginning of 2015. He failed to win a captaincy at Michigan State and had his leadership traits called into question by the clubs looking into his college career and relationships with his teammates and family. This was supposed to be a maturation year for Cook, an opportunity to fly under the radar while learning from OC Bill Musgrave, Carr and McGloin. Instead he’s got a playoff date with football’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed.
And while the odds against Cook leading the Raiders to victory are obviously long, there’s a silver lining here. There’s a way to salvage something and build momentum going into 2017. The Raiders could simply compete. The defense, against a Texans team led by beleaguered free agency darling Brock Osweiler, could return to form and minimize big plays. And the vaunted offensive line, GM Reggie McKenzie’s largest investment in a position group, could keep Cook clean and plow the way for Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.
Lesser teams lie down in these situations. They chalk it up to the luck of the draw and go on vacation. Mack, for one, bristled at the suggestion. “Everyone will put their best foot forward given the situation,” he said, “I expect everyone to pull their own weight.”
If that’s true, then Oakland could do something special on Saturday in what promises to be one of the least-watched NFL playoff games in recent memory. The Raiders could win. And then, no matter what happens next, you’d have to call this season a success. Rather than fold and say “good enough,” Oakland could finish its season with gusto reminiscent of Jack Del Rio’s Week 1, tone-setting decision to go for two on the road at New Orleans in the final minutes. Win a playoff game without Derek Carr and the Raiders vault to the top of every 2017 preseason power ranking, second only to the winner of Super Bowl LI.
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