By Sam McPherson
Super Bowl XXXVII seems like a long time ago, and it was. When the Oakland Raiders lost that title game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, George W. Bush was president, Star Wars: Episode II had just been released, and the space shuttle Columbia was flying its final mission. Americans Andre Agassi and Serena Williams won the Australian Open singles titles. Williams still may be playing top-notch tennis, but everything else is the world seemingly has changed since the Raiders last reached the NFL postseason.
That’s one of the biggest reasons why this Oakland team can’t feel sorry for itself right now as it prepares to take on the Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs without starting quarterback Derek Carr or his backup Matt McGloin. Even as the Silver & Black prepare to start rookie QB Connor Cook, who will become the first NFL QB in history to make his first start in the postseason, the team itself needs to put up its best overall group performance of the season to advance in the postseason, and these Raiders are capable of doing just that.
Offensive Strengths To Support Cook
The Oakland organization has more money invested in its offensive line than other other franchise in the league. That paid off this season as Carr was sacked less than all other NFL quarterbacks. It also reaped dividends in the running game as the Raiders featured the sixth-best ground game in the league, putting up 120 yards per game rushing. While no one expects Cook to perform at Carr’s level, the rookie doesn’t have to replace Carr in order for Oakland to win. What he needs to do is rely on his teammates to perform at their expected level and simply not make mistakes in the meantime.
Cook both fumbled and threw an interception in his playing time during the Week 17 matchup against the Denver Broncos on the road. However, he came off the bench in that game, and it was his first-ever NFL action in the regular season. Given a week’s preparation and a game plan more tailored to his skill set and experience, Cook can protect the ball more effectively and look to a trio of running backs to carry the team against the Texans: Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington ran for 1,746 rushing yards total while averaging 4.8 per carry this season behind that excellent offensive line.
In addition, the two starting wide receivers are no slouches. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are experienced and talented wideouts that must help their rookie QB. Cook and Cooper hooked up for a nice TD play against the Broncos last week, despite limited workout time together, and if the duo can make a few big plays early to keep the Houston defense honest, it will help the running game with more room, too. As for Crabtree, he led the NFL in dropped passes this season with nine, and as a veteran leader on this offense, he cannot let that happen with Cook at quarterback this Saturday against the Texans.
Defensive Strengths To Support Cook
The Houston offense has its own problems, and that feeds into the Raiders’ defensive plans. Oakland’s defense forced turnovers in 14 of the 16 games this season, and the Raiders currently have an eight-game streak with at least one takeaway per game (17 in those eight games overall). If the Silver & Black defense can provide Cook and the offense with two additional possessions on Saturday, it will be that much more helpful for the rookie QB. The Oakland defense only made 25 sacks this year, so a second key is to make sure the Raiders sack the Houston QB more than the Texans get to Cook.
Oakland also gets back rookie safety Karl Joseph for this playoff game, and his presence will make a big difference for the Raiders on defense. Toss in playmaking linebackers Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, and Oakland’s defense will be ready for whatever Houston QB Brock Osweiler throws its way. The Raiders defense knows what it needs to do to win this game and go deeper into the postseason, so look for head coach Jack Del Rio to make sure the players do what they’re capable of this weekend.
Cook Himself Has Great Potential
The Raiders rookie was undervalued in the NFL Draft last spring due to whispers about his character and leadership, so the Oakland organization scored in picking him up with the 100th overall pick. Cook posted a 33-4 record as the starting QB at Michigan State, where he won two Big Ten championships as well as Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl victories. A shoulder injury limited his effectiveness late in his senior year, but Cook still won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award while leading the Spartans to the College Football Playoff. No other rookie QB has that quality pedigree, including Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott.
In fact, the Cowboys chose Prescott 35 picks after the Raiders selected Cook, so Oakland knew what it was doing when it made its own QB choice. Prescott has thrived in Dallas this season due to the same factors that Oakland possesses: a strong offensive line, good running backs and veteran wide receivers. There’s no reason to think Cook cannot be as good as Prescott, despite the fact Cook hasn’t gotten the same practice or real-game experience yet. The Raiders may find themselves with a diamond in the rough here.