Raiders reserve quarterback Connor Cook lofted a pass high enough to float over a linebacker, with proper arc to fall in front of a charging safety and into Griff Whalen’s waiting arms.
That’s exactly how you’d draw it up, from decision to accurate pass to completion that gained significant yards.
The same can be said of a strike to Martavis Bryant a few reps later in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Lions, when Cook launched a deep shot that capitalized on Bryant’s coverage-busting speed and reached him in stride for an easy touchdown .
Those moments have been relatively rare during since the Raiders traded up to draft Cook in 2016’s fourth round. The Michigan State alum has been the Raiders’ No. 3 quarterback, behind Matt McGloin in 2016 and EJ Manuel last year.
His only game action came in a playoff loss at Houston two seasons back, an unfair predicament for a rookie who barely took practice reps with the Raiders offense during the regular season.
He lost an open competition with Manuel for last year’s job, and watched as the veteran took over when Derek Carr suffered transverse process fractures in his back. Manuel completed a game at Denver, and started against Baltimore the following week.
That wasn’t the professional beginning Cook expected. There was talk of him going early in the 2016 draft, but he took a bit of a tumble and then ended up on a team with a young, established starter.
Not ideal. Neither is coaching-staff and scheme instability. Cook is one his third OC /quarterback coach combo in as many seasons. That can stunt growth, especially with limited practice reps while lower on the depth chart.
“You’re starting from scratch,” Cook said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “There was a new system waiting for me as a rookie. Coach Downing used the same scheme but added some tweaks. Now there’s another new system. Everyone’s made a conscious effort to learn it and master it.
“It is very challenging, but it’s the job and I’m going to do it well.”
Cook has been doing well working under head coach Jon Gruden, coordinator Greg Olson and position coach Brian Callahan. We’ve seen practice moments like those described above more often than before, especially in this training camp.
Gruden in particular has impressed by Cook, someone he liked coming out of Michigan State.
“He’s made great strides,” Gruden said. “Since he stepped foot here in Napa, he hasn’t turned the ball over. He’s made good decisions. He audibled two or three times today to big plays. He’s throwing the ball short, medium and deep accurately and he’s showed really good command, and this will be a really good test for him Friday night. He’ll get a good amount of playing time.”
Cook will play a bunch in the exhibition opener versus Detroit and throughout the preseason. It’s a vital stretch for 25 year old, one where he must show progress. Once the regular season starts, Cook’s reps will dry up. He must capitalize on increased opportunity and show better play.
“It’s huge. Every year it gets more important, as your career goes on,” Cook said. “Anytime you get a chance to play, you have to put out good film. Anything can happen.”
Cook’s first order of business is winning the backup job over Manuel. He doesn’t think about the competition at all, but understands solid practice and play could increase his standing over years past.
He can fare well in practice, but game performance matters most to this coaching staff when deciding Carr’s primary backup.
“It’s an import a three-and-a-half week stretch that EJ and Connor are going to have,” Callahan said. “These games are how you make the evaluation. There are several elements that go into the depth chart, but it’s ultimately about how you play. Do you move the team, get first downs and score points? Those things happen when you prepare well, but we want them to go play and show how much progress they’ve really made.”
Callahan dug deep getting to know Cook’s play, and what he needed to improve. There isn’t much game tape to go on in recent seasons, so he reviewed all of his practice reps and preseason efforts. He even went back to watch Cook’s college tape to better understand a physically gifted player with untapped potential.
Callahan has been with Cook since April, and believes he’s more accurate and is making smarter choices. Nothing matters if the ball isn’t delivered appropriately, and strides have been made there.
“There were some things he had to fix (to improve accuracy) and he has,” Callahan said. “A lot of times accuracy for quarterbacks is about footwork and body placement. Those are things you can improve.”
Cook credits this new staff with helping the mental side of his game. Working with offensive coaches can be tough – Gruden especially can be hard on quarterbacks – but have him seeing things clearer.
“I’m better in my reads, in my decision-making,” Cook said. “I’m seeing the field better and understanding protections and opposing defenses. They do a good job of teaching me why we want to run a certain play. It makes it so much easier when you know why.”
Understanding why and what he’s supposed to do has helped get the ball out faster, an issue in previous year’s practices, which still shows up on occasion. Coaches will continue working on Cook’s development, even with an important decision on the No. 2 job coming quick.
“He has made a lot of progress,” Callahan said. “I’ve been impressed with how him and EJ both approach their job. They’re always geared toward getting better. It’s not always easy around here. Jon challenges those guys. He isn’t easy to be around sometimes, because we’re always testing them and pushing them. Connor has done well. “