As the Raiders brace for their final five games, it’s difficult to remember a late-season stretch in which they faced as many critical long-range questions.
That includes whether their long-term quarterback is currently on the roster. Or, better yet, what does rookie Aidan O’Connell need to do to prove he is the future at the position?
The fourth-round draft pick’s ceiling has yet to be defined. O’Connell has flashed starting-caliber traits, including a level of poise and maturity uncommon for most rookie quarterbacks. He gets better with each game.
“He is getting confident,” interim coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can see it in how he walks through the building, how he’s talking.”
For the season, O’Connell has completed 113 of 178 passes for 1,194 yards with four touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also fumbled four times.
”He’s progressing,” Pierce said. “Very positive what he did last game. Obviously, you don’t win, that’s your No. 1 job. But he did a lot of positive things to grow from.”
Nevertheless, projecting whether O’Connell will be anything more than a midlevel quarterback is impossible after five starts. And therein lies the rub. Can he, during the final five games, prove enough to the Raiders that they stake their future on him?
Or will the Raiders be compelled to dip into the draft to secure one of the prospects from a quarterback group as good as any in years?
All of this makes for an interesting, if not tenuous, time for the 25-year-old from Purdue. On one hand, he is a first-year player simply trying to get better. Conversely, his play could set the tone for the Raiders’ offseason.
The question is, what does O’Connell need to show the Raiders in the next five weeks?
“I have to execute better, especially in situational football during the game,” O’Connell said. “I think our guys are hungry to do that. But I know that starts with me, so I’ve been able to look in the mirror and I know I have to do a better job of that.”
Simplifying things to their most basic form could be the key.
“I just want to see him play to the best of his abilities,” said wide receiver Davante Adams, an ardent advocate of O’Connell.
When O’Connell has done that, he’s been effective. That includes the hot start against the Chiefs in which the Raiders took a 14-0 lead. Among his best plays were a 33-yard throw to Adams and a perfectly played 18-yard touchdown throw to Jakobi Meyers.
O’Connell also protected the ball against the Chiefs and produced his only nonturnover game of the season.
“That last game (against the Chiefs), that kid played well,” Pierce said. “He gave us a chance to win, took care of the football, made the adjustments, made the corrections that we needed to, was poised … that’s what we want to see.”
O’Connell appreciated the praise but believes he can do better.
“There’s always good and bad in every game,” he said. “I think, especially when you’re in the middle of the season, especially when you don’t win the game, what kind of stands out is the plays that were missed. And so I definitely think there were some good plays, but I have a lot to work on still.”
But will it be enough?