The NFL needs a hero.
Amid plenty of real life concerns like concussions, domestic violence scandals and controversies extending all the way to patriotism, the league is hemorrhaging viewers. Everyone is searching for answers, but while commissioner Roger Goodell does need to solve those serious problems, it would be just as fair to blame the ratings drop on the same pratfalls of any other television show:
Perhaps the NFL has simply jumped the shark.
Monday night games have been blowouts not worth watching. Thursday Night Football and the feeble attempt to use color rush uniforms as a selling-point has basically become the Fear the Walking Dead spinoff of Sunday Night – “So we have something that is popular and fans aren’t that concerned with quality? Great, let’s crank out another and worry even less about the final product than we do with the original!” But most importantly, many superstars have been lost to retirement (Peyton Manning), injury (Adrian Peterson, JJ Watt), and declining play (Aaron Rodgers).
It seems as though great players are fading away faster than replacements are emerging. And yet one team where the future of the league may be starting to develop is also the franchise that almost no one who isn’t local wants to begin rooting for: the Oakland Raiders.
Seven games into the season, the Raiders are tied for the lead in the AFC West. The last time Oakland made the playoffs, they were led by Jerry Rice, Rich Gannon, Rod Woodson and Bill Romanowski, a team couldn’t be more nineties if it were called The Bayside Tigers. These current Raiders are also led by a prolific duo at quarterback and receiver, but unlike Gannon and Rice, aren’t making retirement plans for after the season.
Derek Carr and Amari Cooper should have a long future together, but could also quietly be the best thing worth watching in the NFL today.
Through 23 games dating back to Oakland drafting Cooper fourth overall last year, the pair has connected on 109 passes for a total of 1,679 yards and seven touchdowns, and they’re only getting better. After Cooper dropped 10 passes on 130 targets last season, he has just one on 40 targets this season. Four throws from Carr to Cooper were intercepted last season, but none have been so far in 2016. Not only could Cooper challenge Raiders’ great Tim Brown as the best receiver in franchise history, but people should be talking about him on the level of A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham as the best wideout in the NFL right now.
But the problem may be that unlike a Beckham or a Dez Bryant, Cooper doesn’t do much talking at all.
Cooper’s high school coach Billy Rolle once said that Cooper maybe said 100 words to him after three years, and Rolle drove him to school every day. At Alabama, where Cooper is the all-time school leader in catches, yards and receiving touchdowns – ahead of Julio Jones – head coach Nick Saban said he may become the best receiver he’s ever had after the first time he saw him workout at camp. Going into the 2015 draft, the top two receiving prospects were Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White. When White was asked why he should be the top receiver taken, he said “I bring a lot more to the table (than Cooper.)”
When Cooper was asked the same question, he laughed and declined to comment. That’s just the type of guy he is; let the play do the talking, because on the field that’s all that matters. But when it comes to ratings, it could be keeping people from realizing they need to be watching him.
Just 22-years-old, Cooper is on pace for 1,403 yards this season, just five yards shy of Brown’s single-season franchise record. If he gets to that number, Cooper would join Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, Josh Gordon, and Allen Robinson as the only receivers to top 1,400 yards in a season before they were 23. There’s a good chance that Cooper will join elite company as the only receivers to top 2,400 yards in their first two seasons (Beckham, Moss, Rice, Gordon, Green, and Torry Holt) but few are talking about him on that scale. Beckham gets the press for his highlight catches, but also for his “will-they-won’t-they” shipping with the kicking net.
Similarly, many people may not realize that Carr has thrown the third-most touchdowns since the start of last season, and is on a clear trajectory to be the best quarterback in Raiders history.
With some people somewhat dismissive of Carr due to the football sins of his older brother David, Derek slid out of the first round and into Oakland’s hands after Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater (coincidentally one of Cooper’s high school quarterbacks) had all found homes. After a rocky rookie season, Carr took a substantial leap forward after the addition of Cooper, including a franchise record 32 touchdowns. This season, he’s cut the rate at which he throws interceptions in half and is on pace for his first 4,000-yard campaign.
This is a QB-WR connection worth watching as much as any in the NFL, and pretty soon the nation is going to find out. The Raiders play on Sunday Night Football on November 6th, Monday Night Football on November 21st, and Thursday Night Football on December 8. Should they remain tied with the Denver Broncos for the division lead, they could also have their Week 17 game flexed to Sunday night. But if that wasn’t enough, the world could start paying attention to the duo in the playoffs this year.
Oakland’s defense is probably not good enough yet to get them to a Super Bowl, but the combination of a bottom-tier secondary and a top-tier passing offense means that they should be providing the type of shootouts that the NFL, and the fans, have been craving.
You may just need to start getting used to the Raiders again.