Amari Cooper: Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

Sep 25, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans defensive back Brice McCain (23) defends against Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) during a NFL football game at Nissan Stadium. The Raiders defeated the Titans 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans defensive back Brice McCain (23) defends against Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) during a NFL football game at Nissan Stadium. The Raiders defeated the Titans 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

A closer look at Amari Cooper and his struggles to get two feet in bounds.

Toe-drag swag.

Respect to Nate Burleson, former NFL receiver (and fellow Canadian) and current NFL Network analyst, who coined this phrase a few years back and made it a weekly feature for a time. I miss it.

The toe-drag catch is a thing of beauty, and crafty Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree would’ve been a regular on that feature while it was on.

Crab’s receiving running mate, second-year phenom Amari Cooper, definitely would not have been. Except in a “here’s what NOT to do” type scenario.

When the Raiders drafted Cooper 4th overall out of Alabama in 2015, he was thought to be NFL ready in many ways. Critics and coaches alike praised the choice. At 6’1″, 210 pounds and with 4.4 speed, Cooper has all the physical gifts and a humble, coachable personality to boot.

A rookie season that produced 72 catches, 1,070 yards and 6 TDs validated that praise and Cooper’s place as a talented young wideout who can do it all.

However, Cooper also struggled with drops in his rookie year. He dropped 20 passes according to Pro Football Focus, and those 72 catches came on 130 targets, which is only a 55% catch rate.

This season, Cooper has vastly improved his catch ability. He has 26 catches on 47 targets which is still only a 55% catch rate. However, he’s only dropped one pass this season, a 2.1% drop rate and a vast improvement over 2015. This year, it isn’t drops that are hurting him.

It’s a lack of toe-drag swag.

We’re seeing progress from a player who is not yet perfect but is getting damned close. Last year it was drops. He’s fixed that. His route running, nose for the ball and football IQ has never been at issue.

The only problems he seems to now have are keeping his feet in on tight sideline throws and an overall understanding of sideline rules in general.

Amari missed one slightly out-of-bounds in the Titans game, unable to keep a second foot in. But it was the Atlanta game where his lack of sideline awareness came to the fore and really hurt.

The Raiders are currently 4-1 and look better than they have in very many years. It’s not a stretch to say that they could be 5-0 if Cooper was better around the sideline.

The NFL rulebook states if a receiver goes out-of-bounds during a live play, they cannot be the first player to touch the ball after re-establishing themselves in bounds. It also states that the receiver must go out voluntarily and not be pushed out by a defender. But it’s well known that for that to apply, it has to be a pretty blatant push.

Cooper did just this on a pivotal 4th quarter play that would’ve tied the game. Cooper got pushed out-of-bounds slightly but didn’t really fight to stay in bounds. He took his time to come back in bounds. He then flagged down Carr for a strike that he took to the house for the game-tying score.

Here’s JBB editor Nick Hjeltness’ vine of the play:

The problem was he didn’t realize he’d violated a rule — which is also a penalty. Cooper admitted himself after the game he didn’t really know the rule. The TD didn’t count, the Raiders failed a 4th down conversion and the Falcons took the ensuing possession in for the game-clinching TD. It was a rough sequence of events.

Cooper’s feet betrayed him again — and the old illegal touching rule came back in a strange way too — in the Raiders hard-fought victory over the Chargers on Sunday in Oakland.

The AC/DC connection was feeling it with San Diego missing top corners Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers, and Cooper ended the day with a very nice line of 6 catches for 138 yds and a TD.

But it’s the three other TDs he could’ve had that weren’t that kept this game close, and made Cooper’s toe-drag issues and lack of sideline awareness seem more than just an isolated incident.

Twice in the first half, Derek Carr lofted perfect fade passes to Cooper in the end zone. Twice Cooper caught them for what in real-time appeared as touchdowns. But twice, Cooper’s one foot just grazed the sidelines. He honestly seemed to have little understanding of trying to avoid that happening, which is odd.

Both of those TDs were not. The Raiders had to settle for field goals. As a result, they were 1 of 3 in the red zone after being 10 for 11 coming in to the day.

Late in the game with the Raiders trailing, Cooper made a spectacular play in the back of the end zone. After disappointment in the Atlanta game you can bet Cooper understands illegal touching. I’m not going to fault the kid on this one. The refs blew it.

Carr climbed the pocket and fired a strike to Cooper on the back end line, and Cooper went up the ladder and got it nicely. However, the TD didn’t count due to illegal touching. Referee Gene Steratore — who’s officiating of the Raiders is routinely atrocious — determined Cooper went out of bounds and was the first player to touch the ball.

Steratore’s crew immediately conferred to tell him that was wrong, that Chargers S Dexter McCoil interfered with Cooper. After a comically long discussion they changed the call to pass interference. Steratore somehow decided to uphold the incomplete pass ruling.

Um, no. If it’s pass interference by definition the push was illegal. Per the rules that player CAN be the first player to touch the ball. How did they explain themselves?

A cop-out. They said Cooper didn’t re-establish himself with two feet in bounds. Although replays seemed to show he did, the Raiders instead settled for a Jamize Olawale 1-yd TD run.

Cooper caught a beautiful 64-yard TD pass late in the third quarter, which was his first and thus far only touchdown of the season.  He could have at least three more if he simply paid more attention to the sidelines and the rules governing them.

He has the best teacher one could ask for in Crabtree. King Crab has made toe drag swag a routine part of his playbook this season and is one of the game’s best at making difficult catches while staying in bounds. That’s why Carr continues to look to him during critical moments in the game. He proved it again against the Chargers with a diving TD grab to convert a key 4th and 2 situation.

If Cooper wants Carr to look his way during those key moments, he’ll have to show he’s trustworthy. He showed his determination in cleaning up his drops from last season. His work ethic is second to none.

You can bet he’s upset with the missed opportunities. He knows they were a matter of inches and being mentally prepared. Missed opportunities can only happen so often before they start costing you more than stats. Cooper wants to do anything he can to help his team win. He wants to be the best.

He wants that toe drag swag.