Everybody knows about the Triple Crown and the 31-length victory in the Belmont and Secretariat’s status as maybe the best racehorse of all time. But how many people remember that two weeks before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, he ran third in the Wood Memorial?
Which brings us, of course, to the Raiders, who actually finished one position better last week at Denver Downs in their final tuneup for their first playoff appearance in 14 years.
The thing to keep in mind on the Raiders’ past performance chart is to throw out their latest – the 24-6 loss to the Broncos. Yes, the Raiders would have enjoyed a first-round bye with a win. Who couldn’t use an extra week off work? But there is no disgrace in being a wild card, as six teams have proceeded from that circumstance to win Super Bowls since the extra playoff teams were added in 1978. The Raiders did it in the 1980 season. They should just see themselves as doing their part to feed the TV money machine that is the NFL.
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On Wednesday, the Raiders announced they will keep Connor Cook in the stirrups for Saturday’s wild-card playoff game against the Houston Texans, just like Secretariat’s did with jockey Ron Turcotte after he and his horse finished up the track in the Wood. The decision means Cook will get a lot more reps in practice this week, certainly more than Turcotte received in Louisville in the run-up to the 1973 Run for the Roses.
You’ll recall that this time last week, the Raiders were not overly familiar with Cook. Left tackle Donald Penn said then he’d never even heard Cook’s voice until just a few days before Sunday’s fiasco on the Front Range.
I’m just going to go out there and make plays for my teammates. I’ve never been the rah-rah kind of guy. You know I’m going to be vocal inside the huddle. I’m going to communicate to my guys on the sideline, and stuff like that, but I would just always go out there and just try and make plays and let the play speak for itself.
Connor Cook, Raiders quarterback
The harmony between Cook and the rest of the Raiders’ offense should be much improved now that he has been named Saturday’s starter.
Matt McGloin, the seldom-used backup, had been appointed to the first string by default after Derek Carr broke his leg. Then the rookie Cook played better than McGloin, a four-year veteran, in the loss to the Broncos. Coach Jack Del Rio cited Cook’s performance as a major factor in the decision to start him in Houston. Another was McGloin’s left shoulder injury against Denver. The mathematics of the situation made Del Rio’s decision to go with Cook an easy one.
“He played pretty well when he went in,” Del Rio said, “and Matt’s hurt.”
Del Rio hopes McGloin’s shoulder heals enough so he can resume his role as the backup quarterback Saturday. If you’re looking for real Raiders trouble, you may find it if Cook is injured or ineffective and McGloin is shoved into action with his bad shoulder and a track record that does not include the big-game experience Cook gained as a three-year starter at Michigan State.
What would be worse for the Raiders is another lackluster defensive performance such as the one against Denver. The Raiders also need to run better than they did Sunday, when their running backs gained only 57 yards.
Raiders fans, however, should be feeling better about their chances with Cook. He knows the deal when it comes to pressure, going 34-5 as a starter and playing against seven top-10 teams in his college career. He won five of those matchups, including two Big Ten Conference championship games. Of course Michigan State got crushed by Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal last season in his final college game.
As Del Rio said Wednesday of Cook’s showing against Denver: “The moment didn’t look too big for him.”
If the quarterback kept his cool in Denver with only a minimal number of practice snaps with the regulars, you’ve got to think he’ll be more collected and confident going into Houston with more preparation.
“We’ll get to watch it play out,” Del Rio said. “Let’s see him play. Honestly, we haven’t seen him a lot. We saw him a half a game, or thereabouts, in Denver last week, and that was pretty good.”
At his first news conference Wednesday as a first-team quarterback, Cook looked like somebody who won’t be shaken by something like a little old wild-card game. He knows the playbook, or at least he better, after not having much else to do the past four months. Now his teammates are learning his voice. He’s getting more comfortable with his teammates, and they with him.
If there was a rap on him at Michigan State, it was he might have been too aloof from the gritty business of being a vocal leader. It’s just not him.
“I’m just going to go out there and make plays for my teammates,” Cook said. “I’ve never been the rah-rah kind of guy. You know I’m going to be vocal inside the huddle. I’m going to communicate to my guys on the sideline, and stuff like that, but I would just always go out there and just try and make plays and let the play speak for itself.”
If all else goes well for the Raiders on Saturday, all he’ll have to do is steer.