And then there was one.
The way Derek Carr and Khalil Mack had it figured out, they’d be the two players who would return to the Raiders to a position of NFL prominence.
“It’s weird. We planned everything,” Carr said Monday. “We planned the next 10, 15 years of our life, sitting at those lockers. It’s a little bit of a different chapter now.”
Mack was drafted first No. 5 overall in 2014, Carr came later at No. 36, the second-round bargain primarily responsible for keeping Reggie McKenzie in the general manager’s seat.
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In a cruel twist of NFL finances, they aren’t teammates any more, with Mack having been shipped to the Chicago Bears on Saturday for a bounty of draft picks in large part because of what the Raiders paid Carr in June of 2017.
The Raiders gave Carr a five-year contract worth $125 million, guaranteeing a little more than $70 million. Rather than become the first team to sign two players to extended deals with average salaries of more than $20 million, Raider coach Jon Gruden and management determined Mack’s price tag was too high. Way too high. Way, way too high.
The Bears are being celebrated for giving a defensive end a $141 million contract with a $90 million guarantee, and the Raiders vilified for dealing Mack away. It’s fair to criticize the Raiders for their sense of timing, given the two sides were never in the same financial stratosphere since February.
Yet make no mistake, probably half the teams in the NFL would have swallowed hard before giving a defensive player that kind of money, especially teams that already have mega deals tied up in a quarterback on his second contract.
The Los Angeles Rams, the Raiders opponent on Sept. 10, were able to bring in Aaron Donald in a deal similar to that of Mack’s because their quarterback, Jared Goff, is on his rookie deal with an average salary of less than $7 million per year.
Carr understands the financial ramifications of his contract, although he lumps in the deals of Class 2014 draftmates Jackson (five years, $55 million) and Justin “Jelly” Ellis (three years, $15 million) as helping make the pie too small to give Mack the huge slice he eventually received in Chicago.
“I think that’s what makes it hard,” Carr said. “We all knew — me, Gabe, Khalil, Jelly — we all saw it coming ... we all did our best to make sure it could happen, and it didn’t work out that way ... we were always talking, open about everything, because we had plans together. It just makes it tough.”
A year ago there were two faces of the Raiders franchise in Carr and Mack. There still are two, only now it’s Carr and Gruden. And only Carr can make a difference on the field.
Whether the Mack deal becomes a colossal failure or not depends on how many wins Carr delivers.
If Carr ascends to the Rodgers-Brady-Brees level of quarterback play, victories will follow and fans and media will get over trading Mack.
But Carr will need to make a quantum leap to reach that standard, and there are no assurances it will happen right away.
We barely saw Carr in the exhibition season, which doesn’t provide much of a clue anyway. Of more concern is the fact that Carr is on his fourth different offensive system and will be asked to change his game to Gruden’s specifications.
Carr did most of his best work in 2016 from the shotgun formation while leading the Raiders to a 12-3 record before being injured. Gruden’s offense will have Carr under center for more snaps, although the shotgun is still an option.
Carr was at his best passing on time from a clean pocket. Gruden likes his quarterbacks to be able to roll out on occasion and execute throws on the run.
Carr has not been big on using his feet to create on broken plays. Gruden is looking for Carr to extend drives with scramble first downs with the quarterback sliding to keep himself out of harm’s way.
And Carr is the unquestioned leader of a team in flux. Under Gruden, the Raiders have 31 players who were never part of the last year’s 53-man roster.
The majority of the team has never even played with Mack.
So while it would seem unlikely this group would hit the ground in a dead sprint, Carr, as usual, is exuding positive vibes.
“You see our team changing. You see it on your couch and it’s popping up on your phone. Who’s coming? Who’s going?” Carr said. “You sit there and everything is against you. Everything is, ‘It’s going to be hard.’ Everything is ‘You can’t do it.’ It makes me that much more determined.
“From the beginning, I was thinking, when we go out there I want to make it look like coach Gruden and I have been together 10 years. There’s going to be some bumps because we’re new at this, but hopefully not too many.”
Carr believes he and Mack helped change the culture of the building in terms of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.
Now he’ll go it alone, with the future of the franchise riding on his shoulders.
“With (Khalil) gone, if you stand back and look at it, it’s ‘What do you have to do now?’” Carr said. “I still have to do my job.”