ALAMEDA – Amari Cooper led the NFL in dropped passes as a rookie. The Raiders receiver wasn't happy about it. He worked tirelessly, as he's known to do, to get it fixed.
His drops dropped from 18 to 5 from freshman to sophomore seasons. The original issue, however, has returned.
Analytics site Pro Football Focus says he has six drops out of 16 catchable passes this season, double the league's second-worst offender. Some of those "drops" could be argued – one was tipped, another was overthrown – but even a few is too many for someone with elite receiving skills.
His last was a doozy. He cut across the middle, with the ball upon him just beyond the first down marker. It was 3rd-and-9. The Raiders were stagnant, and needed their best skill player to step up. Derek Carr threw a strike that slipped right through his hands and off the crown of his helmet.
It was a big moment in Sunday's disastrous loss at Washington.
Time and again he's helped win crucial games with dynamic route running and significant yards after the catch. Cooper needs to get the Raiders out of tight spots, not magnify them.
That mission wasn't accomplished in Washington. Cooper dropped to his knees after the aforementioned play, and spent a minute with his head in the turf.
"It can be a little frustrating," Cooper said Wednesday, "but you have to go and fix it."
The problem has been identified.
"Most of the balls I've dropped," Cooper said, "have been a result of trying to run before I actually catch the ball."
Coaching can only help so much in these situations. Cooper must react well at a moment of truth, to see it, pluck it and tuck it.
"If I felt like I could talk my way through it, I'd be yapping all over the place," head coach Jack Del Rio said. "It's not something I can talk my way through. He's just going to have to make the catch, do the work. I believe in him. I believe he will. To me, he's one of our dynamic playmakers and we need him to make plays and he will."
Cooper can be a tough read. He doesn't show emotion on the field or in front of cameras. That's just not his style. It's hard to imagine anyone with consecutive Pro Bowl elections and 1,000-yard seasons to start a professional career lacking confidence. He surely isn't at this stage. Cooper is a great route runner with speed and agility. It's just a matter of finding last season's form, when he was catching everything close. He was doing that this preseason as well, so this drop streak hasn't lasted long.
Production, however, is the name of this game. Cooper currently has 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown in three games. That ranks 92nd among receiving leaders. Talent doesn't match that ranking, even in a small sample size. Cooper wants to do better, and work to achieve that goal. The key at this stage, especially going up against Denver's top-flight, often intimidating secondary, is playing free.
"I don't think he's pressing or anything like that," Carr said. "I think he just expects so much more out of himself that he gets mad at himself. I'm looking forward to getting out here at practice and throwing him some balls today."