After the Oakland Raiders cut into an early Houston Texans lead to make Saturday’s AFC wild-card a 10-7 game, Connor Cook, the rookie quarterback making NFL history by being the first QB to have his first-ever start come in the playoffs, led Oakland to eight-straight punts. Five of those drives were three-and-outs. Five lasted less than 70 seconds. There were three first downs total and just four additional plays added to the minimum 24 you’d get with eight three-and-outs. It was every bit as ugly and unwatchable as it sounds.
But that’s what Jack Del Rio did – he watched. He watched his rookie third-stringer take 28 snaps and gain a grand total of 28 yards (the yards-per play average is easy to work out) in the eight biggest possessions of the season. He watched Cook start the game 6-21 for 78 yards with a rating that would make Tim Tebow blush. And still Del Rio did nothing. Matt McGloin, the backup to Derek Carr who suffered the Week 17 injury that thrust Cook into QB duty, did the same, fiddling with a football as Cook burned. McGloin would never see action in Oakland’s season-ending 27-14 loss.
At a certain point – early in the third quarter probably – it became readily apparent to anybody watching that Cook wasn’t going to be able to lead the Oakland Raiders to victory. The fact that McGloin was active, healthy and watching the whole thing from the sideline became more and more baffling every time Cook came out onto the field (then left about two minutes later).
This isn’t to suggest McGloin was going to come in and look like Jim Plunkett. For all we know he may have been even worse than Cook. Over the last three years he’s thrown just 66 passes and his career record as a starter is 1-6. Nothing he’s shown in those games offered a hint that Jan. 7, 2017 would be the day he of his NFL coming-out party.
No, McGloin had only one thing to offer: He wasn’t Connor Cook. The Raiders needed a spark and the most obvious way to get it was to bench the underperforming, over-his-head quarterback and put in someone else, someone who may have been just as underperforming and over his head but would’ve at least brought the possibility of something other than three-and-outs. This was a two-score game for the entirety of the third quarter. One touchdown could have changed the entire arc of the game, affecting momentum, the Raiders confidence and Houston’s self-doubt. Oakland seemed content to never find out.
Nothing that happened on the field at NRG Stadium on Saturday could have possibly made Jack Del Rio think Cook was the guy who would put the Raiders into the next round of the playoffs. Excluding garbage time (when Cook, down 20 points, threw a touchdown and a pick while Houston backed off, content to let the clock run down), the only positive for the Raiders offense came on that second-quarter touchdown. But that was set up by a long punt return and two big runs to start the drive. By the time they called a play for Cook, the Raiders were on the Texans’ 14. He’d end up making just one throw on the short, five-play, 38-yard drive.
It’s not Connor Cook’s fault he’s Connor Cook. Don’t blame this loss on a 23-year-old rookie who as recently as one week ago hadn’t taken any snap in any NFL game. Blame his coach. Jack Del Rio gambled in starting Cook and it was a reasonable choice in an unpromising situation. But once that bet showed it wasn’t going to pay off, Del Rio had to cut his losses and put in the guy he passed over. At least then the Oakland Raiders might have stood a chance.