Raiders' future at QB in question as 2023 NFL season winds down

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Thursday, December 14, 2023

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Aidan O'Connell faced the Los Angeles Chargers in his NFL debut back on Oct. 1, and things got, well, ugly.

The Las Vegas Raidersrookie quarterback was sacked seven times. He fumbled three times and lost two. O'Connell was also picked off once inside the Chargers' 5-yard line as the Raiders were attempting to score a tying touchdown with a little more than two minutes to play in the eventual 24-17 loss.

Guess who's coming to dinner Thursday? Yeah, Khalil Mack, who had six of his league-leading 15 sacks that day, & Co. (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video).

And yet ...

As ugly as things got for O'Connell and the Raiders the last time they faced the Chargers, Sunday's showing in a 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was worse.

Much worse.

So much so that any questions as to whether O'Connell, the final pick of the fourth round in April's NFL draft, is the Raiders' future at the position might have been answered. It wasn't that O'Connell was the reason Las Vegas fell to a Vikings team that's almost as impotent offensively, but the Raiders likely would have won by three scores with any semblance of competent QB play.

Which makes now, with four games remaining and the Raiders (5-8) still harboring faint playoff hopes, a fine time to check in on Las Vegas' QB quandary going forward.

But any question about the most important position in team sports only begets more queries when it comes to the Raiders and sets in motion a pseudo choose-your-own-adventure scenario.

RAIDERS INTERIM COACH Antonio Pierce has referred to O'Connell as his "BFF," and riding with him to the fateful end against the Vikings, despite the lack of offensive spark coming off the bye week, showed an uncanny loyalty. Even as the Vikings, in a similar offensive funk, dared to swap QBs in the fourth quarter. Their replacement, Nick Mullens, gave Minnesota enough juice to kick a field goal to win the lowest-scoring indoor game in NFL history, an outcome Raiders All-Pro receiver Davante Adams called "embarrassing."

"We knew what [we were going to] get when we put Aidan at quarterback," Pierce said. "It was going to be some ups and downs, and this was not one of our better performances."

He's right ... to a degree.

Because after O'Connell put up the second-best QBR (88.6) in the NFL in Week 12 in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he came off a bye week to post a QBR of 16.8 against the Vikings. His QBRs have ranged from the sublime (82.7 against the New York Giants in Week 9) to the ridiculous -- 8.1 against the Chargers and 20.9 against the Miami Dolphins in Weeks 4 and 11, respectively.

"I have confidence in myself to execute and do my job properly," O'Connell said after completing 21 of 32 passes for 171 yards and a game-sealing interception against the Vikings.

On the season, he has completed 63.8% of his passes for 1,365 yards, four touchdown passes and seven interceptions in seven games, six of them starts. The Raiders are 2-4 in his starts compared to 3-3 under veteran Jimmy Garoppoloand 0-1 with 38-year-old vet Brian Hoyer.

Still, O'Connell had some high-powered supporters in the locker room before the loss to the Vikings.

"I just want to see him go out there and play," All-Pro running back Josh Jacobssaid. "Don't think too much. Just go out there and sling it. ... You don't really got too much to lose. Just go out there and have fun, show what you can do."

Adams concurred.

"Just trust himself and do what he's been doing and do the things when he had a great rhythm in the preseason," Adams said. "Just kind of remind himself of what he can do and just keep building. It's no pressure from any of us and we love him and we're supporting him through every step of the way. I just want him to be him and be comfortable out there."

Against the Vikings, though, O'Connell looked anything but comfortable, and it cost the Raiders. Enough to seemingly answer those tough questions about the most important position in team sports, right?

"I haven't done it good enough, so I've got to be better at doing that," O'Connell allowed. "But I still have full confidence in myself to do this. I'm learning every week what it takes and working extremely hard to try to put a good product on the field. I'm not doing it right now, so I have to do better."

But for how long?

MIGHT $72.75 MILLION man Garoppolo, benched in the wake of the Halloween night firings of coach Josh McDaniels, general manager Dave Ziegler and offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi, get another shot at righting the Raiders' ship? And even if he does, is he truly the future if he is healthy for the first time since signing that three-year free-agent deal with $45 million guaranteed in March? Remember, Raiders owner Mark Davis no doubt had to give his blessing to Garoppolo's benching.

Garoppolo came to Las Vegas in the wake of the former regime kicking nine-year starter Derek Carr to the curb, and, related or not, after Tom Brady retired ... for real this time. Garoppolo agreed to join the Raiders needing surgery on his left foot, and the team responded by making him sign a waiver that would not pay him a dime until he passed a physical.

He did not participate in any on-field activities during the offseason, but when training camp began there he was, physical passed, taking snaps on the field, albeit on a "pitch count" to gradually bring him along. He was the unquestioned starter, and his teammates marveled at his leadership qualities.

He was a winner, the locker room and coaching staff crowed, and his 40-17 regular-season record with the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers as a starter proved it. His well-documented injury history, though, reared its head almost immediately. Garoppolo's head bounced off the Allegiant Stadium grass late in the Raiders' Week 3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and, despite not leaving the game, he entered the NFL's concussion protocol and missed the following game, resulting in O'Connell's debut.

Garoppolo returned the following week to beat the Green Bay Packers but then suffered a back injury against the Patriots and was taken to the hospital at halftime for fear of an internal injury. As such, he missed the Week 7 loss at the Chicago Bears, even as he traveled to Soldier Field to watch Hoyer struggle so much in the start that O'Connell relieved him late. A week later, Garoppolo was pummeled and the Raiders were embarrassed by the Detroit Lions 26-14 on "Monday Night Football."

Asked after that game, in which he was sacked six times and completed 10 of 21 passes for 126 yards with an interception, if he thought he was constantly playing catch-up because of his offseason surgery and in-season injuries, a weary Garoppolo shrugged.

"Yeah, I mean, I'm not," Garoppolo paused, "I'll never make an excuse like that. It is what it is. We're in the season now. People don't care if you have excuses or not, so you just, you've just got to go out there and play. I've got to play better.

"There's just so much love in that locker room, man. It sucks that we performed like that."

McDaniels, meanwhile, was asked if he was considering a change at quarterback.

"I'm not going to talk about that right now," McDaniels said. It was his final official quote as Raiders coach, and less than 48 hours later, Pierce announced O'Connell would be the guy going forward.

Garoppolo was supposed to fit seamlessly in McDaniels' offense, given their past together in New England. But his 65.5% completion percentage is the lowest of his career in any season in which he has started at least six games, as are his 35.7 Total QBR and 78.1 passer rating. His previous such lows were 53.3 and 92.4, respectively. Also, Garoppolo's nine interceptions were leading the NFL when he was benched, and his 5.4% interception percentage this season dwarfs his career average of 2.7%.

As such, his future with Las Vegas is murky at best, the Raiders having already cleared salary cap space by converting $21.3 million of his existing base salary into a signing bonus in September. His base salary of $11.25 million for 2024 is guaranteed for injury only, so the Raiders risk that by putting Garoppolo on the field again, and he is guaranteed $33.75 million thanks to the restructure.

Still, if the Raiders cut him before next season, they would have to eat a salary cap hit of $28.3 million for 2024, unless they do it with a post-June 1 designation. Then they'd be able to split the dead-cap hit over two years, $15.5 million in 2024 and $12.8 million in 2025.

IF THE RAIDERS move on from O'Connell and Garoppolo, who's their next QB? Interim general manager Champ Kelly was the Bears' assistant director of player personnel when they drafted Justin Fieldsin 2021, and Fields might be available in trade this offseason if the Bears get the No. 1 overall pick and choose to take a quarterback.

Still, the only person guaranteed to be around the facility come spring will be Davis, and the owner prefers a big quarterback with a bigger arm and some mobility who not afraid to extend a play, or four.

Who doesn't, right?

Garoppolo aside, it has been a long time since the Raiders went the veteran stopgap route, whether in free agency or making a splashy trade. But it's in the franchise's DNA, almost as much as the colors silver and black.

Paging Jim Plunkett, Jay Schroeder, Jeff Hostetler, Jeff George, Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins, Carson Palmer, Jason Campbell.

Obviously, some had more success than others -- way more -- but might Davis take a page from his late father Al's book and insist the Raiders go in that direction?

Besides Fields, other vets who could be available this offseason include Kyler Murray, Kirk Cousins -- who is coming off a torn Achilles tendon -- and Ryan Tannehill.

Again, choose your own adventure, right?

This exercise is all up in the air until Davis chooses his new general manager and coach ... or sticks with Kelly and/or Pierce. As we saw with Ziegler and McDaniels, a new staff will most assuredly want its own guy. Even Jon Gruden was not sold on Carr at first when he was hired back in 2018 (he had eyes for Murray initially, before going all-in on Carr).

Might it then make more sense for the long-term health of the franchise to lose out (not tanking, mind you), get a top-five pick and use it on a true franchise quarterback? Keep in mind, the Raiders have used a first-round pick on a QB only three times since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and all three -- Marc Wilson in 1980, Todd Marinovich in 1991 and JaMarcus Russell in 2007 -- trigger negative memories from a weary Raider Nation.

If the Raiders do make a run at USC's Caleb Williams or North Carolina's Drake Maye or even LSU's Jayden Daniels, who has a personal connection with Pierce from their time at Arizona State and gave the Raiders interim coach a shoutout upon winning the Heisman Trophy -- who is making that call?

If the draft were held today, the Raiders would hold the No. 6 pick, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, and other quarterbacks that could/should be available there include Heisman finalists Michael Penix Jr. (Washington) andBo Nix(Oregon), and potentially J.J. McCarthy(Michigan), who could return to school for another season.

Now that we think about it, hiring Jim Harbaugh as coach might make the McCarthy selection a 2-for-1 thing, right?

See, only more questions.

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