The Oakland Raiders will go as far as Derek Carr can take them. How far is that? Based on his progression thus far and his play in 2016, quite far.
Rewind to December, 2015. Derek Carr had just thrown three picks in a late-game meltdown against the Kansas City Chiefs to all but end any hopes of a playoff spot for the Raiders, and he was pissed.
"“We turned the ball over. Can’t do that, especially against a good team,” Carr said at the time. “That’s my fault and we’ll get it fixed.”"
Carr was having issues closing out games. He had a 101 passer rating — but that dipped to 60.5 in the 4th quarter, as he tried to do too much for a young team. It often led to costly mistakes.
Coach Jack Del Rio was a little more forgiving and noted that Carr would benefit from experiences like this down the road. He was impressed with the young man’s willingness to accept blame and expressed supreme confidence in Carr moving forward.
"“I think the sting of having that experience will stay will you,” the coach said. “The guy is super talented, and he’s taken all the responsibility he needs to. I completely believe in the young man and I’m confident that he’ll learn from that experience and be stronger going forward.”"
Fast forward to opening day in New Orleans, 2016. Carr’s fixed it.
The Raiders had driven the length of the field for the game-tying touchdown, pending an extra point. This is because their young QB, previously saddled with 4th quarter decision-making issues, has been laser-sharp on the final drive.
Del Rio shows he wasn’t blowing smoke. With supreme confidence in Carr as the leader of his offense, he eschews the easy tie and potential overtime for a chance to win the game with a two-point conversion. Carr — remember, he’s got it fixed — throws a perfect fade to Michael Crabtree for the win. Confidence given. Confidence validated.
That play has defined the season thus far.
The Raiders would not be 7-2 without Derek Carr. That much is obvious every time he steps on the field. He brings a genuine joy and enthusiasm that is infectious, and no player works harder or puts in more effort.
Carr had a very nice statistical season for a second-year player in 2015. He completed 61.1% of his passes for 3,987 yards, 32 TDs and 13 INTs. He had a QB rating of 91.1 and looked to ascend to the next tier of QB performance.
Yet it was the Chiefs game, the Broncos game in October, the Packers game. Carr still had a tendency to try too hard in clutch moments and it often cost the team. He wanted to win so badly some times he would force things to happen — and they would. But not with good results.
In 2016, Carr has been far more careful with the ball. He only has 3 INTs on the season, and none have been in clutch situations or particularly costly. His completion percentage is up at 66.1%, and he already has 2,505 yards and 17 TDs. That puts him on pace for over 4,000 yards, 35+ TDs, and less than 10 INTs in his third season.
Carr also has led multiple fourth-quarter comebacks. He actually led four in 2015 as well — with seven, he leads all NFL QBs since the beginning of 2015 — but his late mistakes overshadowed some of those heroics. Last season he lost multiple games late as well as winning them.
This season, it’s been all heroics. He led the team to victory on their last drive in New Orleans. He narrowly missed leading the team back to tie the Atlanta Falcons.
In the Raiders seven wins this season, only two have been kneel-down winning varieties. The other five have taken everything Carr has — and sometimes beyond — to get the job done.
Carr has led three game-winning drives this season, the first being in New Orleans. The next was in Baltimore, and then the overtime thriller in Tampa Bay. However, he was on point late against Tennessee and San Diego as well, even if they aren’t official “game-winning” drives.
It’s impressive that he’s gone from playing his worst in important moments to playing his best in under a season. He’s put in a lot of work to keep his team in position to win games, rather than try to do too much and potentially lose them.
A leader who recognizes their faults and works hard to improve upon them is usually an effective, and long-term, leader. Carr is certainly that. No-one is harder on Carr than Carr is on himself.
Perhaps the biggest step forward in Carr’s development is his understanding of the game and game situations, and his physical and mental ability to adapt to those situations. The best example of this just happened.
Two weeks ago the Raiders dominated the Buccaneers in Tampa but couldn’t put the game away. That may have something to do with committing an NFL-record TWENTY-THREE penalties in the game. That’s usually a good way to lose.
Only the Raiders didn’t, mainly because of Carr. He threw for a franchise-record 513 yards, led another 4th quarter game-tying drive, and then hit Seth Roberts for a walk-off TD when crazy winds made it clear kicking wasn’t the best option.
Carr understood what his team needed; for him to throw the ball until his arm fell off because they couldn’t get out of their own way. So he did — and became one of three players in NFL history to have 500+ yards, 4+ TDs and ZERO interceptions. That’s quite impressive.
What was perhaps more impressive was his performance against the Denver Broncos the next game.
A week removed from the franchise record for passing, Carr had less than 200 passing yards and no TDs as the Raiders ran the ball all over the Broncos.
Carr didn’t need to have a big statistical game. He consistently made the right line checks and reads, and made big third-down throws to keep the chains moving. He didn’t turn the ball over, and kept the offense moving smoothly all night. Carr had 12 first downs through the air — meaning 60% of his 20 completions went for first downs.
The defense and running game completely set the tone. Carr was happy do his part and manage the game efficiently. It was a huge sign of growth for the young passer.
Carr can throw the ball a zillion times effectively if the Raiders need him to do that in order to win. He can throw for first downs and protect the ball when the rest of the team is clicking, he can run the ball when needed, and he is willing to fight for extra yardage. He’s got grit, moxie, and leadership at a growing rate in 2016.
Most importantly, Carr gives the sense that the Raiders are never out of the game as long as they have him under center. He’s fast becoming one of the most efficient and reliable playmakers in the NFL, and mid-season MVP chatter just validates his ascension.
While Carr dismisses such talk and speaks with Belichickian focus about the task at hand, his play and leadership in a variety of game circumstances this season warrants such talk, though there are still skeptics.
The article linked at “skeptics” makes a fair point, as the offensive line is a huge part of Carr’s success. He’s still not the most adept passer when under pressure, but the line provides him excellent “Carr Insurance” so he rarely is.
Carr is the first person to praise the offensive line and is a major team-first guy who treats his teammates impeccably. He’s beloved by all, and he’s the first to accredit his success to the big boys up front. That’s why they feel this way about him:
"“People don’t listen to me, I’ve been telling you about Derek since I met him,” said LT Donald Penn. “Every time you ask me about him, I smile, and light up, man. This guy’s special, and he’s showing y’all now. He’s a special guy, special guy.”"
Carr isn’t the only key piece to the Raiders’ success. His receivers, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, are both excellent and bail him out often. Khalil Mack is a defensive animal. The Raiders defense has quietly put together three solid games in a row. Latavius Murray is a TD machine. The coaching staff is impeccable. This team has a lot of moving parts that contribute to their success.
But Carr is the beloved and unquestioned leader of this group. As one of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Raiders need leadership on their roster. Mack brings that through his play and his work ethic, but it’s Carr that inspires the “we can do anything” confidence through his play and his words.
Though young himself at 25 years old, Carr is playing in 2016 with a veteran savvy and unbridled confidence that belies his age. As a result, this team is in good shape — now and seemingly for the future.
The ultimate goal is a Super Bowl.
The best way for the Raiders to get there? Take the Carr.