HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Fighting to be his team's starting quarterback isn't new for Aidan O'Connell.
He had to do that at Purdue and now is faced with a similar situation after his rookie season with the Las Vegas Raiders.
O'Connell succeeded with the Boilermakers, but his future is less certain in Las Vegas.
“There hasn’t been a lot of years I’ve been the unquestioned starter going in, so I'm used to competing,” O’Connell said Thursday at a promotional event for the Super Bowl on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas. “I had to compete to get to this spot that I'm in. I also think it would be right to have competition in this league. It's the NFL. It's the best of the best, so it's my job to try to keep my job.”
He walked on at Purdue after not receiving any scholarship offers from major colleges. O'Connell's patience and perseverance paid off when he became the starter in his fifth year. He set numerous school records over his final two seasons and was named second-team All-Big Ten Conference both years.
Then last year, the Raiders drafted O'Connell in the fourth round, the idea being he could learn behind veteran starter Jimmy Garoppolo and maybe even serve as an insurance policy in case the oft-injured Jimmy G went down again. Garoppolo signed as a free agent after being part of one Super Bowl and two NFC championship teams with the San Francisco 49ers.
Garoppolo threw nine interceptions and seven touchdown passes as the offense sputtered, leading to Raiders owner Mark Davis firing coach Josh McDaniels on Oct. 31 and replacing him with Antonio Pierce.
One of Pierce's first decisions was to name O'Connell the starter. The results were mixed, though the Raiders went 5-4 after starting 3-5. O'Connell threw eight touchdown passes and had zero interceptions over his final four games.
“I thought we saw growth with Aidan,” Pierce said. “I thought at the end of the season he was playing some really good football that led to some wins for us, taking care of the football, being responsible, being more vocal. I think he put himself in a position to learn what it’s like to be a pro in the offseason because he could reflect on what he just did.”
And yet there is chatter the Raiders either will look at this year's quarterback-heavy draft class or free agency to find their franchise QB.
The reason for the lingering doubts revolve over whether O'Connell showed he could be the type of quarterback to take Las Vegas deep into the playoffs.
“At the end of the day, it is a business, so I understand that,” O'Connell said. “I just try to control what I can control and do my best to not let that take the joy out of playing football.”
O’Connell isn’t Las Vegas’ only question at quarterback. Garoppolo remains under contract for two more years. It’s possible the Raiders give him an opportunity to win his job back.
They also could facilitate a trade for Garoppolo if it appears he would begin next season on the bench. His salary cap hit is more than $28 million each of the next two seasons, according to overthecap.com, so the Raiders might be motivated to help him find another landing spot.
“I just want to get back to playing,” Garoppolo said shortly after the season. “That’s why I play this game. I love to win. I think that’s what I’m here for. As a football player, that’s something you’ve got to embrace. Not everyone wants that. Some people just want statistics and things like that.”
Pierce is in the process of hiring an offensive coordinator. Former Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who spent last season as a senior offensive analyst at USC, interviewed Friday for the position, Sports Illustrated reported.
The Raiders also are interested in former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan and ex-Cleveland Browns OC Alex Van Pelt.
O'Connell said he didn't have a say in who becomes the the coordinator.
“It's their call,” he said. “I'm a player, so I'm just going to keep playing and try to do the best I can.”
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