Amari Cooper’s TNF performance nets weekly recognition

Through the first 38 games of his NFL career, Amari Cooper averaged 4.8 catches on 8.2 targets for 69.5 yards per game. Those numbers were good enough to garner Pro-Bowl bids in each of his first two seasons, but never before had he erupted the way he did in the Raiders’ 31-30 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a Week 6 Thursday night thriller.

Cooper set career-highs in targets (19), yards (210) and touchdowns (2). He also finished one short of matching a career-best of 12 receptions.

Following the explosion, which set up a Derek Carr-to-Michael Crabtree final second — actually, later — game-winning touchdown, Cooper claimed his first AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award.

Speaking for the first time since being named the award winner at Wednesday’s practice, Cooper echoed the team-first sentiment of head coach Jack Del Rio:

“It means a lot. Every team in the AFC played so to be the player of the week, that means they think I was the one who performed the best. And it’s great for the team because every time the team has success, that’s when the individual awards come.

What made the effort even more spectacular was Cooper’s struggles heading into the primetime divisional showdown, and what the win meant to his team’s season.

After a productive five-catch, 62-yard, one-score performance in Oakland’s Week 1 victory in Tennessee, the third-year man seemed to disappear into the fold of the Oakland offense. Over the next five games, in which the Raiders went 1-4, Cooper hauled in 13 (2.6 per game) of his 26 (5.2) targets for 84 yards (16.8) with none of those receptions finishing in the endzone.

It seemed clear that Carr and offensive coordinator Todd Downing had made it of great importance to have the team’s most explosive offensive weapon get involved early and often, flipping him a quick pass on their first offensive play of the game. But, as Carr said Wednesday, it wasn’t a case of force-feeding the other half of Oakland’s “AC-DC” tandem, rather exposing how he was being covered.

What made the coverage Cooper faced different was his positioning within the play? He wasn’t a constant at the wide-out spot on either side of the field. He wasn’t a constant anywhere.

Instead, Downing had Cooper moving from position to position, from wide left to slotted right, from the “H” receiver to the “F” receiver. Said Carr:

“People can’t set their watch to where he’s going to be, if you can move him around. … We definitely try and have something planned where he’s all over the place, and it makes it easier on me because I don’t focus on, ‘he’s in this spot, I’ve got to get him this ball.’ … Playing that game with him really helps our offense.”

Not only does having Cooper move from position to position force the defense to cover him differently, it forces the defense to cover him with different men, allowing him to attack the secondary on different plays with the same moves. Said Cooper:

“The benefit that I see is, you go up against different players throughout the game. If you’re constantly on one side, and you keep going against the same player, the smart players will learn your moves.”

It isn’t as easy as it may sound, however, to have a stud receiver moving all over the formation. It takes a smart player, as Carr said. A player who understands the entire play book and each man’s responsibility on any given play — knowing which route to run and how deep to run it, at as many as five different positions.

Carr likened his receiver’s ability to move around freely to that of NBA superstar LeBron James, who regularly plays all five positions on the court, game in and game out:

“(He’s) super-smart. He knows the whole playbook. We just saw LeBron, he was talking about how he played point guard this past game. You take a guy that’s super-smart, that can go from playing the 3 and go to playing the 1, and he can go play the 5 and he knows all the sets, he knows all the plays, he can do all those things. Amari is the same kind — mentally, he’s the same kind of guy. … I don’t know if he can play quarterback, but I’m sure he’d find a way to be successful.”

Cooper, a Miami native who was a student at Northwestern High School while James was a member of the Miami Heat, laughed off the comparison. He did, though, add that understanding the complete working of the playbook and each receiver’s responsibility helps him be more spatially aware of the route-runners around him.

Along with Cooper’s individual success that came from a refreshed gameplan, the Raiders as a team stayed alive in the playoff race — both as a divisional and Wild Card contender.

After a 2-0 start, four straight losses had forced Oakland deep into the AFC West cellar. The victory not only allowed the Raiders to keep pace with the San Diego Chargers (3-4), who picked up their third-consecutive win over the Denver Broncos (3-3) on Sunday, but handed the division-leading Chiefs (5-2) their second consecutive loss, drawing them back to the pack.

A fifth-straight loss may not have eliminated the Raiders from playoff contention, but it would have delivered a massive blow to it.

Always looking forward, though, Cooper was far more focused on the negatives than the positives.

And there were a few — a glaring pair, to start. Cooper suffered two dropped passes, pushing his season total to four, tying him for a league-high, and bringing his season catch percentage (the percentage of targets caught) to 50, tied for sixth-worst.

That fact, however, is just another reason to be impressed with the young wide out’s player of the week performance, according to Del Rio, who expects to continuing seeing Week-7 Cooper moving forward:

“He stayed ready to go. … He’s a really good player, to me, he got back to being himself. I thought we did a good job of getting him incorporated, which I would like to see continue.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Raiders beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.