ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — For the first 15 games of the season, rookie Connor Cook was inactive each week, making his biggest contribution as a scout team quarterback who would sometimes dress up like Cam Newton or Philip Rivers before Oakland faced those stars to lighten the mood at practice.
Now with the Raiders set to play their first playoff game in 14 years, Cook has been thrust into a much more significant role. He will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in a playoff game when Oakland (12-4) visits Houston (9-7) on Saturday in a wild-card matchup.
“I’m just embracing the opportunity,” Cook said Wednesday. “I’m going to go out there and have fun, let it all hang out and obviously prepare my butt off and do what I’ve been doing all year long and go out there and have fun with my teammates.”
Cook moved up to the backup spot last week after starter Derek Carr broke his right leg in the second-to-last game of the regular season. He then got his first real action last Sunday in Denver after Matt McGloin was knocked out with a left shoulder injury.
With Carr still sidelined and McGloin slowed by the injury, coach Jack Del Rio called the decision to turn to Cook an easy one.
“We just want him to be himself and do what he can do,” Del Rio said. “He played pretty well when he went in and Matt’s hurt. We’re hoping to get Matt healthy enough to be in a backup role. Right now, that remains in question.”
Cook showed some positive signs in his limited action last week even though Oakland lost 24-6 to miss an opportunity to clinch the AFC West and earn a first-round bye.
He completed 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards and a 32-yard TD pass to Amari Cooper but also turned the ball over twice against one of the league’s top defenses. The challenge won’t get any easier this week against a highly regarded Houston defense led by edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
“I felt pretty calm,” Cook said. “With the hard circumstances, just going in there and stuff, I felt like I was confident. I know the offense well. I’ve been in the system for almost a year now. We were running stuff that I’ve been familiar with. It was actually fun to get out there and get some reps.”
The Raiders thought highly enough of Cook that they traded up in the draft to take him with the top pick of the fourth round, moving ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, who ended up with Dak Prescott instead.
Cook had been projected by many to go higher in the draft to a team looking for a potential starting quarterback but ended up being the seventh quarterback selected. Five of those other players started games this year while Cook just watched, but he will be the first to get a chance in the playoffs. Prescott will start next week for the Cowboys.
Cook had a prolific college career, leading Michigan State to a 34-5 record and two Big Ten championships in three years as starter for the Spartans. Cook threw for 71 touchdowns and 9,194 yards in his career but completed just 57.5 percent of his passes. Cook also faced criticism of his leadership skills after his teammates decided not to elect him as team captain, a slight Spartans coach Mark Dantonio downplayed.
“He did a great job leading us,” Dantonio said. “He led us to two Big Ten championships and three big bowl games. When you’re playing in the Rose Bowl, or Cotton Bowl in the playoffs, or the Big Ten championship games, you’re on a big stage. This of course is a bigger stage, but he has experienced the anxiety that comes in those situations and he has performed well in those situations.”
While Cook said he prefers to lead with his play rather than a rah-rah style, his teammates in Oakland noted that his laidback demeanor instills confidence.
“He has this calm sense about him,” running back Jalen Richard said. “He got in there in the game in Denver and he’ll be out there ready to call the play and has his hands in his hand warmer calling the play with that swagger. I feel very confident in Connor.”
NOTES: LT Donald Penn did not practice after injuring his knee last week. … S Karl Joseph (toe) and DT Stacy McGee (groin) both practiced and could return this week after missing time with injuries.
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