Derek Carr watched the Raiders’ return to the playoffs Saturday from his couch, his right lower leg in a protective boot, participating the only way he could.
“I had my game plan there with me,” Carr said. “I’m trying to do the reads.”
Without Carr to make the throws, though, the Raiders’ renaissance season ended in Houston with a 27-14 loss to the Texans in the AFC wild-card game. They flew back to the Bay Area late Saturday night and spent Sunday holding end-of-season meetings and cleaning out lockers, rituals they had hoped to delay several more weeks.
“To see the teams that are still in it and knowing that could have been us is frustrating,” said long snapper Jon Condo. “But you’ve got to look at that and use it as motivation to get better. We had a great year, but obviously we weren’t good enough to move on.”
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Two years removed from an 0-10 start the Raiders went 12-4, a turnaround led by Carr, who emerged as an MVP candidate. Carr threw for 3,937 yards and 28 touchdowns and orchestrated seven fourth-quarter comebacks. His value was only underscored when on Dec. 24 he suffered a broken fibula late in a win over the Colts.
Turning to backup Matt McGloin for the season finale and rookie Connor Cook against Houston, the Raiders were outscored 62-20 in two-plus games after Carr’s injury. While other aspects of the team struggled, it reinforced the effect of losing Carr.
“It’s kind of obvious,” receiver Andre Holmes said. “DC was MVP all season. When you lose your MVP, it makes it tough, even though we had capable backup quarterbacks, very capable backup quarterbacks … All that said, if DC was healthy, I feel like there’d be more people in this locker room right now.”
Carr admitted to wondering the same thing.
“Yes, ’cause I’m human,” Carr said. “I’ve said what if, I’ve said why, a lot in the last two weeks. But I can promise you I’ve been the same person. It’s obviously hurt me. Some days I’ve been really down and sad. But it doesn’t change who I am. It just hurts, because I love our team, I love our coaches, I love our fans, I love playing this game.
“I think that’s the part that hurts most is I just wanted to be out there. But we’ll be back.”
The Raiders have a young nucleus including Carr, linebacker Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper and will return most of an offensive line that was a primary strength this season. Unrestricted free agents include running back Latavius Murray, Holmes, tackle Menelik Watson, linebacker Malcolm Smith, safety Nate Allen and corner D.J. Hayden. Carr said he expects some turnover but is “super excited” about the Raiders’ future.
“I’m going to work my tail off to be better next year, and that’s the mindset our whole team has,” Carr said. “They came in here today to hear what their coach needed them to do better. When you’ve got a group of guys that won 12 games and don’t care about that, they just want to be better, I think we’re going to be all right.”
Coach Jack Del Rio pinpointed several areas for improvement next season, led by the tendency of the defense to allow big plays. The Raiders’ defense forced the second-most turnovers in the league but also allowed the most passing plays of 20- and 40-plus yards and the second-most rushing plays of 40-plus yards.
“That might be the number one thing we must do better going into 2017,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio said the Raiders, who ranked last in sacks, must also generate more of an interior pass rush, and the number of drops by receivers was “more than I’m comfortable with.” Less than 24 hours removed from its finale, he also acknowledged the progress made this season, despite its “abrupt ending.”
“There’s been a great deal accomplished, there’s no question about that,” Del Rio said. “But is it enough? No. I want more, we want more as an organization.
“Our goals are higher, so that’s not going to change. But we’re not going to pretend like it wasn’t really good.”