The life of a starting quarterback in the NFL is a controversial one. In an era where the three highest paid positions in football are quarterbacks, the men who chase them, and the men who protect them, pressure is at an all-time high to win, and to win easily. Unfortunately for Derek Carr, winning isn’t something the Raiders done enough of, and the fans are growing restless. How much of Oakland’s struggles are Derek Carr’s fault, and should the team move on in 2019?
The Curious Case of Derek Carr
In order to really break down Derek Carr’s future, you have to take a deeper look at his past. For while some of his performances have been great, and others have been disappointing, it’s unfair to base the success of an entire team on one man who literally can’t do the job by himself.
When the Oakland Raiders selected Derek Carr with the 36th pick of the 2014 NFL draft, Raider Nation was ecstatic. It had been over a decade since Rich Gannon had won the league MVP as the team’s starting quarterback, and the fanbase was desperate for some talent under center. Some quarterbacks, like Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell, played well in bursts. Others, like JaMarcus Russell, made fans want to imitate the team’s logo, an eyepatch over one eye, the other closed.
Dennis Allen’s original idea was to start Matt Schaub for a season, allowing Carr to grow more comfortable with the offense and the speed of the NFL. Carr wasn’t having that, and after an incredible preseason outing vs. the Seattle Seahawks, he forced Allen’s hand, and was named the starter for week one.
Carr’s rookie season was a chaotic one. Dennis Allen was fired after four weeks, and the Raiders had a historically bad run game, only rushing for 1,240 yards and four touchdowns on the season. Carr’s leading receiver was 30 year old James Jones, and the team finished with only three wins.
Despite no run game, a makeshift offensive line, and a supporting cast of bargain bin free agents, Carr threw for 21 touchdowns and even beat the Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn’t a great season, but the Raider Nation was optimistic about the future.
After the remnants of Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano’s coaching staffs were fired, Jack Del Rio was brought in as the 20th head coach of the Oakland Raiders. More importantly, offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, and quarterback coach, Todd Downing were brought in. Many people talk about 2016 as Derek Carr’s breakout year, but they forget how good he was in 2015.
In 2015, the Raiders showed signs of life, winning seven games, rarely looking anything but competitive. Carr had a season that most people seem to have forgotten about, throwing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns. If a finger injury hadn’t taken him out of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in week one, he likely would’ve broken 4,000 yards.
Why the huge boost? Well for one, Carr’s offensive line was dramatically improved. The additions of center, Rodney Hudson, and left tackle, Donald Penn, gave Carr a much better offensive line, while rookie Amari Cooper and free agent signing, Michael Crabtree, gave him weapons. The emergence of tailback, Latavius Murray, gave Carr his first 1,000 yard rusher, and the improvement was obvious.
In only his second season, Carr led the team on four different game winning drives, and even though the defense was putrid, they only lost one game that Carr actually played in by more than two touchdowns. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in 2014, that happened on six different occasions.
2016 has become a legendary season for Raiders fans, as it marked the team’s first winning record and playoff berth since 2002. Derek Carr was a bonafide MVP candidate, Khalil Mack was the Defensive Player of the Year, and the Silver and Black won 12 games.
Carr threw for 3,973 yards and 28 touchdowns to only six interceptions, and the team had seven Pro Bowlers, including free agent stud, Kelechi Osemele, who solidified Oakland’s offensive line as one of the best in football. At points during this season, the Raiders looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Now, it’s true that the memory of this team is better than the squad actually was, but there’s no question that they could’ve made some real noise in the playoffs if it weren’t for the devastating injury to Derek Carr in week 16. Trent Cole beat Donald Penn and rolled Carr up, breaking his fibula, ending his season.
This injury is significant, because for many, it marks the end of Carr’s tenure as Oakland’s true franchise quarterback. For many Raider fans, this is the moment where Derek Carr stopped being the quarterback that had made so many in the franchise optimistic about the future.
But something else happened in 2016. After the season, Jack Del Rio opted not to extend Bill Musgrave’s contract, choosing to promote Todd Downing to offensive coordinator instead. This is important and will become relevant again later.
For Raider Nation, 2017 is about as horrible as 2016 was wonderful. The team only won six games after starting 2-0 and being a trendy Super Bowl favorite. Derek Carr suffered a broken back and rumors about a divide in the locker room regarding the anthem protests ran wild. Carr threw six fewer touchdowns, six more interceptions, and never looked comfortable in the pocket, let alone like a MVP candidate.
Downing’s offense is a shell of the 2016 playbook. The team rarely uses moving pockets or play action, and instead of throwing the ball deep, the offense revolves around checkdowns and short passes. For the first time in his career, Amari Cooper had fewer than 1,000 yards, and huge free agent signee, Marshawn Lynch, never found his rhythm in the backfield.
Just like in 2016, Oakland’s defense is putrid, but this time, there’s no offense there to bail them out. On New Year’s Eve, after the last game of the year, it’s announced that Jack Del Rio has been fired, and it’s all but confirmed that Jon Gruden will return to Oakland as it’s head coach.
Despite a rough 2017 season, expectations were high for the Raiders in 2018. Gruden has always been known for his offensive prowess, and the last time he was the head coach of the Raiders, he transformed journeyman Rich Gannon into a MVP quarterback.
The Raiders were extremely competitive early in the season, holding the lead going into halftime on multiple occasions. Carr even outdueled a debuting Baker Mayfield to give Oakland their first win of the season. Eventually though, the team fell apart. The squad couldn’t seem to score touchdowns (they were 28th in points for), and the defense couldn’t stop anybody (they were 32nd in points against).
Their only wins came against other non-playoff teams like the Browns, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Steelers. While a 4-12 record is ugly, there is some good news.
The Silver (and Black) Lining
It was a rough year, but the Raiders actually showed signs of life. They gave Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs all they could handle in week 13 before coming home and outright beating Antonio Brown‘s Pittsburgh Steelers. Two weeks later they routed the Denver Broncos, and even though this was a team starting two rookies at tackle, lacking any playmakers on offense, with no depth on defense, they were fighting.
This was not a good roster. At the end of the year, the leading rusher was Doug Martin, and outside of a Pro Bowl season from Jared Cook, the leading receivers were 33 year old Jordy Nelson and tailback, Jalen Richard. Brandon Parker struggled mightily at right tackle, and Kolton Miller couldn’t seem to get healthy on the left.
This was a very bad roster, and yet Derek Carr produced career highs with yards (4,049), completion percentage (68.9%), and yards per attempt (7.3). He threw eight interceptions in the first five weeks, but only threw two in the remaining eleven. The only stat missing was touchdowns, but it’s hard to throw touchdowns when the best receiver on your team plays for the Dallas Cowboys now.
Carr progressively got better as the year went on as he and Gruden began to understand each other. Despite the losing record, the team never stopped fighting. More importantly, Carr never stopped improving.
The Cold Hard Truth
Derek Carr has had to deal with a dysfunctional, consistently changing franchise. Carr has never had a defense that ranked in the top twenty, and as great as the line as been, his Raiders have only ever had one 1,000 yard rusher. Not to mention, Carr has had more changes at head coach than Tom Brady and Drew Brees combined. Throw in the fact that he’s had three different offensive coordinators (Greg Olson in 2014 and 2018), and has suffered everything from finger injuries to broken bones, and it’s not like he’s been asleep behind the wheel.
People expect him to be fluent in pro offense, but the language changes every season. He’s expected to master different strategies and philosophies, but he never gets the time to perfect any of them. The one year in his entire career where he had the same offensive system, with a good offensive line, a run game, and weapons, he was an MVP candidate.
We won’t really know what Gruden is planning until the first four Raider picks are off the board in April. There’s a chance that Jon Gruden does trade Derek Carr and select his own quarterback, and that’s fine. Gruden is in charge, and whatever he believes is the best way to win is the way things will be. It’s unreasonable to think someone Kyler Murray’s size could’ve survived what Carr has endured, or that he could transform a roster this bad into contenders by himself.
Watch the Raiders go out and get some pieces for Carr. Let them shore up the offensive line and get him a playmaker or two. This would only be the second time in his career he gets a second season in the same scheme, and that can only mean good things for the Silver and Black.