SAN DIEGO — The divot is still kicking up from where Amari Cooper, on the day he arrived as an American sports happening, left somebody named Jimmy Wilson eating dirt and swallowing his charred ego. Wilson will be fine in life, having once been acquitted of murder after spending two years in jail awaiting trial, yet no one wants to be on his side of football history in any context.
“He’s amazing. He’s awesome — one of the best in this league,” said Cooper’s adoring quarterback, Derek Carr.
It was no coincidence that Air-mari broke through as an NFL conversation piece and fantasy geek’s wet dream on the day the Raiders delivered their most spirited win in years, leading by 31 points after three quarters en route to a 37-29 smudging of the powder-blue-wearing Chargers. We cannot understate the wow factor and wizardry of this play just before halftime, the beauty of its drop-dead flawlessness. Lined up wide left at the snap, Cooper rolled behind receivers Seth Roberts and Mychal Rivera, caught a short screen in stride from Carr, stumbled, followed a fleet of blockers downfield, maneuvered past various lunging and falling Chargers and then gave us, after seeing Wilson converge with two other defenders, what will be known as The Step.
“A move I’ve been making for a long time,” Cooper told me.
He planted his right foot at the 18-yard line, and his body pivoted and shifted left. The move was so magical and devastating, like an Allen Iverson crossover dribble, that Wilson went flying and teammate Kendall Reyes tripped over him. The other defender, Patrick Robinson, simply gave up as Cooper glided into the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown and extended his arms to a pack of ecstatic Raiders fans in the stands.
“It was a perfect play,” said Cooper, dressing quietly in a raucous locker room. “I caught the ball, saw a lot of room, and I began to stumble but I got my footing back. I just made some moves on them.”
That’s all. Some moves — moves that make the stands tremble, if not the earth. “I was inspired by Amari Cooper,” said his fellow receiver, Michael Crabtree, who responded with his own touchdown catch.
“A highlight player,” Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers said.
“You just get to see his speed there, his explosiveness,” Carr said. “When he got drafted, I said he could turn a one-yard pass into 50. I’m not even sure that was a one-yard pass.”
As you know, Cooper doesn’t say much. As you know, he is not demonstrative. But he doesn’t have to be. Let Carr do the talking and smiling as he climbs up the league’s quarterbacking charts. Let coach Jack Del Rio take well-deserved credit for blowing up a gloom-and-doom culture, producing a 3-3 team that is in the AFC wild-card race and giving the Bay Area one respectable football team to follow. Let a suddenly competent defense explain how Philip Rivers was limited to decidedly fewer passing yards (336) than he amassed the previous week (503), along with two killer interceptions.
AC/DC — Cooper from Carr — is here to stay.
Whether we can say the same about the Raiders in the Bay Area, of course, is another matter. It was impossible to ignore the looming political implications for the Raiders and Chargers off the field, the possibility that this was the final game these rivals will play at Qualcomm Stadium. With no movement for new stadium projects in Oakland or San Diego and a political snag in St. Louis, all that remains now are the relocation applications, franchise-fee checks and a January vote of the league’s 32 owners to determine which two of the three candidates — Raiders, Chargers and Rams — and which of two projected sites are most viable for Los Angeles.
Meaning, every time Carr, Cooper and the Raiders deliver a terrific performance that makes you want to attend a game in the Coliseum, you may have to plan a 2016 trip to L.A. Unless there’s some unforeseen thawing in the iceberg between Raiders owner Mark Davis and 49ers owner Jed York — neither of whom want the Silver and Black playing games in Levi’s Stadium — the odds remain fairly strong that the Raiders and Chargers will set aside a longtime heated rivalry and join business hands in a suburban L.A. superstadium. The league must decide whether Carson makes more sense than the Inglewood site of Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the most-well-heeled of the three owners, who conceivably could recruit popular Chargers owner Dean Spanos for his cause and leave Davis in the cold.
But if the owners and commissioner Roger Goodell are at all wavering on the Raiders returning to L.A., where they played from 1982 to 1994, they may want to investigate the rooting patterns Sunday. Raiders fans were loud, louder than the Chargers fans. They were loud in the parking lots, louder for the opening kickoff, even louder when Malcolm Smith picked off Rivers to set up the Raiders’ first touchdown, louder still when Carr located rookie tight end Clive Walford for another score — all that before they unleashed another thundering “COOOOOP!” when Cooper leaped over two defenders for a 45-yard jump ball, of which Carr said, “That was, ‘Please, catch it.’” He did.
The roar was so relentless and palpable all afternoon, from a healthy contingent of fanatics in silver and black, that you had to pause and look around the stadium. No, we weren’t in Oakland. We were in southern California.
Ninety minutes south of Carson, in fact.
“It helps to have a home game on the road,” said Latavius Murray, who rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown. “It’s huge.”
“Definitely felt like a home game,” said Carr, “and you have to give credit to our fans. We appreciate that.”
“You saw it. It is what it is,” grumbled Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who was lucky not to be ejected after kicking Raiders lineman Donald Penn.
Clearly, the Raiders haven’t lost their fan base in these parts. Would the support transfer 100 miles up the freeway? Why not? It took me 90 minutes in fairly heavy traffic to reach Qualcomm from Carson. I even pulled off the Avalon Boulevard exit on I-405 to check out the 157-acre site by Del Amo Boulevard. What struck me first was a shiny road sign: STADIUM WAY. The so-called street was a few hundred feet long, stretching from an empty field blocked by pylons to a busy intersection in a neighborhood with an Ikea store, a Chili’s, a Sizzler and the nearby soccer stadium where David Beckham used to play.
It would be weird watching the Raiders and Chargers there. But then, we’d probably enjoy watching Amari Cooper play football in a coal mine.
“Our fans were really loud,” he said.
Excuse me, but is that a moving van starting its engine?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.