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Raiders Week 12: Living with the growing pains at quarterback

Las Vegas must allow rookie Aidan O’Connell to make mistakes and learn from them for posterity’s sake

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Las Vegas Raiders rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell, seen here getting sacked last Sunday, has made nice plays and had awful ones. The Raiders must let the rest of the season play out with O’Connell at quarterback to determine the plans for the 2024 offseason and draft.

The Las Vegas Raiders have no choice but to ride the wave that comes with starting rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell. For posterity’s sake, the Silver & Black need to see if the fourth-round pick can learn, improve, and progress.

The team needs a definitive of an answer it can get on O’Connell in the final six games as that’ll determine the path at the all-important quarterback spot. Either the fourth-round pick rises to the occasion and allows this current regime — or the next — to roll with AOC, or the critical game film and results in the final six result in a pivot.

The Raiders need that answer regardless if Antonio Pierce and Champ Kelly are chosen and shed the “interim” tags from the head coach and general manager spots, respectively. Because while there are three signal callers on the roster currently — veterans Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer are the other two — it’s O’Connell that gives the team the best chance to win. Garoppolo turned out to be an interception machine with immense happy feet in the pocket while Hoyer wasn’t any better and likely has one foot in the retirement door at 38 years old.

Put simply: Garoppolo and Hoyer are worse than what O’Connell is now, even though the rookie remains a relative enigma. What dire straights Pierce’s and Kelly’s predecessors left them in, eh?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Miami Dolphins
Las Vegas Raiders veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) is now mentor and backup to rookie Aidan O’Connell.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

In the four games O’Connell’s played (2-2 record), he’s completed 90 of 145 passes (62.1 percent) for 946 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions. The 25-year-old quarterback also been sacked 12 times. His most recent outing — the Raiders 20-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday — saw O’Connell throw three interceptions to one touchdown. Despite that, he’s got the unwavering support of his head coach and teammates.

“That’s where you want the team to kind of rally around the guy. I mean, look around the National Football League, a lot of young quarterbacks are playing, a lot of guys are struggling with young quarterbacks, some guys are doing really well,” Pierce said during his Monday press conference. “And for two games, we did well, and we had one half that didn’t go the Raiders’ way.

And again, as we talked about it, our leaders from Kolton Miller to Dre (Andre James) to Josh Jacobs to Tae (Davante Adams) they have to put their arm around a young guy because we’ve all had rough days like that in office and not to point fingers at anybody, you can’t do that. It’s a team effort when we win, it’s a team effort when we lose.”

Having a rookie signal caller combined with a neophyte play caller is a compounding factor, of course. Interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree was thrust into the play caller role — just like Pierce and Kelly in their respective rolls — when owner Mark Davis shook things up by dismissing head coach/play caller Josh McDaniels, general manager Dave Ziegler, and offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi. And with McDaniels playbook still steeped in the Raiders this year, it’s highly unlikely Hardegree has his full gamut of plays installed.

Las Vegas inconsistency in the ground game isn’t helping either. Teams have keyed in on stopping running back Josh Jacobs and loaded the box. While Hardegree and O’Connell have shown more of a penchant to attack defenses vertically, the Raiders need Jacobs rolling to be balanced and imposing on offense.

“I think two halves, right? First half, executing, getting the ball where we want it to, maybe a throw or two here we wish we could have and complete. In the second half, as we know, no need to press there,” Pierce said. “There was some situations where we were probably pressing. We’ve talked about it. It’s going to be obviously a great learning lesson, not just for Aidan, but for myself and what positions we put him in and how we allow the flow of the game to go and not to have that kind of stress on a young quarterback.

“So, it’s a team effort, it’s a team’s disappointment as well. It’s not on Aidan, we didn’t lose the game because of Aidan. Let’s get that straight. But Aidan does know he needs to care of the ball, that’s the quarterback’s number one job, and we’ll get better at that.”

Team effort, what a novel concept. The Raiders defense — which was much-maligned and often pointed to as the Achilles heel of the team — has become the group’s strength. It’s the offense that’s wilting.

At 5-6, Las Vegas remains in the thick of things but are slated to go toe-to-toe with a Kanas City Chiefs (7-3) team that’s seething from a 21-17 Monday night loss to the Philadelphia Eagles (9-1) in a game they could’ve easily won.

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chiefs
Defensive tackle Chris Jones, center, and the Kansas City Chiefs defense sacked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts five times on Monday.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If Las Vegas defense remains strong this Sunday against Kansas City, the Raiders offense must come back to life. Because after a tremendous 30-point effort to kickoff the Pierce era, the point totals have reverted back to the McDaniels era.

“We’ve just got to execute better,” O’Connell said after the Dolphins loss. “We can’t turn the ball over. It’s really on us at the end of the day to do our job better, me in particular. It’s just frustrating.”

“We’re not freaking out,” Adams added after the defeat. “We just have to stay together and find a way to convert better.”

But it’s Pierce who summed things up best when asked what’s the timeline for knowing if the rookie quarterback is the answer of if the team looks elsewhere.

“We have six more games left, so we’ll find out in six more. And then we’ll see what happens with AP in 2024,” Pierce noted.