Derek Carr wasted no time moving on from a dismal New Year’s Eve in 2017, a day that featured a 20-point loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and Mark Davis firing Jack Del Rio with three years left on his contract.
After the owner scurried out of the stadium, players juggled frustration with shock after their head coach’s dismissal and the Raiders’ underwhelming 2017 reached a finite end, the starting quarterback reached for his cell phone.
Eric Mahanke remembers “Super Bowl” flashing across his screen.
“I know exactly what he’s talking about,” said Mahanke, Carr’s trainer back home in Bakersfield. “That’s him just setting a standard for himself, like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”
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Carr and Mahanke turned the page toward preparing for the 2018 season almost right away without a broken leg to wait on like the offseason prior. They formulated a plan to make Carr healthier, stronger, more mobile and more flexible. Nothing too drastic, just ways for Carr to fine-tune his physical arsenal to ensure he’s more like the 2016 Carr than the 2017 one.
This year, Mahanke noticed the biggest January-July leap in Carr’s four offseasons as a pro. Now he’s a fully healthy quarterback in the hands of Jon Gruden, and that alone should elevate Carr closer to that near-MVP signal-caller of two seasons ago. Tack on changes to his diet, workout warm-ups and, maybe most important, the way he’s challenged by his head coach, and Carr might just be onto something here in 2018.
“It’s injury recovery, it’s food, his coaches, his workout plan in the offseason, it’s everything,” Mahanke said. “It’s aligned to where he would want to be. He’s prepared and set up to succeed big-time, better than he ever has, for sure, as a Raider.”
The offseason tweaks started with mobility, not because Carr wants to scramble for first downs all season, rather to simply move more freely wherever he is on the field.
For the first 20-30 minutes of workouts, Carr emphasized rolling out his muscles and stretching, pinpointing tight areas and always hitting the hips, lower back and the T-spine in the middle of his back.
On days when he wasn’t doing total body strength training, Carr focused on speed, agility, stretching and throwing.
He entered the offseason striving to improve his range of motion, and he did just that. He possessed enough pure strength and speed after the 2017 season that he could afford to work on more niche aspects of his repertoire such as pliability and mobility.
“Think about how much you walk all day, how much you’re moving, bending stuff up and you’re only gonna stretch one time just to go practice?” Carr told the Bay Area News Group. “If we can stay more flexible before that, then when we go stretch you can stretch even farther. Now you’re sitting somewhere where your stride length is longer, you’re at less risk for injuries if you get hit and bent certain ways, and things like that, and honestly overall health, too.
“Stretching has to be a lifestyle. It sounds funny ... Focusing on those things while still doing this stuff and getting after it, staying strong, mixing the two has been really nice.”
In the kitchen, Carr altered his diet to better fuel the physical tweaks. Less protein powder, power bars, gluten foods, candy, ice cream and corn chips. More fruits and vegetables, 100 percent grass-fed beef and chicken, properly raised salmon and a higher ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6s.
“Just certain things that we found create inflammation,” Carr said of what he removed from his diet. “I was like, man, especially in a business like this, you got to feel great every day. Being more flexible, making sure the muscles aren’t as tight, making sure they’re getting the right stuff, the stuff that really God made for us, that’s stuff we talk about all the time. God created this stuff. I think we should eat it, and so just adding more of that kind of stuff has really really helped a lot.”
You wouldn’t notice it by looking at him in a helmet and practice jersey, but Carr feels healthier. That, although not the foremost reason those around him think he’ll be better this year, is a sturdy foundation to build upon. Mahanke also pointed out that Carr looks thinner, but only because he has shed body fat despite remaining around the same weight.
With healthier foods feeding an improved physique entering training camp, Carr had his desirable body to execute whatever ounce of football direction Gruden peppered him with. And there were plenty. Randomly during team film sessions, Gruden will often single out his starting quarterback and force him to respond on cue in front of the team.
Gruden barks at Carr to read the coverage on the screen, to explain what the cornerbacks will do, to tell everyone in the room where he’d ideally throw the ball. That didn’t happen under Del Rio and Todd Downing.
Carr cherishes the challenge of responding on the spot in front of his teammates, even if the setting is just a meeting room. If he can’t make a split-second decision correctly during a game, the whole operation falls apart, so why not practice nailing his responses first when the bright lights aren’t shining?
“Derek looks like a completely different person in my eyes, just from the way he’s attacking the game, from the way he’s attacking the challenges that Gruden has been giving to him,” second-year Raider and starting tight end Jared Cook said. “Every time that Gruden asks him a question, he gets it right, no hesitation. Every time Gruden asks him to get up in front of a meeting room and call out a play, run a play, get to the right check, get to the right audible, he does it every time.
“That’s a responsibility that Derek never had last year. You see a totally different player out of him. He’s attacking the game differently mentally, and he has a totally different attitude going into this year.”
Carr loved Del Rio, but he was a defensive-minded head coach. There’s been a marked difference, just in the fact a quarterback has a head coach known for being a quarterbacks guy.
If Carr is doing something football-related, he’s doing it with Gruden next to him. In an offensive meeting. In the quarterbacks room. If Carr isn’t in a practice drill, he’s standing next to Gruden while they pick each others’ brains.
Carr estimates the Raiders log the most reps on a daily basis of any team in the NFL, and he doesn’t think there will be a day he spends with Gruden over the next 10 years in which he doesn’t learn something new from the head coach.
Asked how many hours per day he spends with Chucky, Carr chuckled.
“You know, the other night I was dreaming of him calling a play, so I’ll just say 24 hours,” he said. “We’re always thinking of the next play, of the next call, of the next adjustment. I think he’s brainwashed me a little bit. I guess I kind of feel like his quarterback robot a little bit.”
Gruden has coached some pretty decent quarterbacks during his time, namely Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson. He’s also met countless others, whether they be in his QB Camp or production meetings before “Monday Night Football” games.
People questioned how coach and quarterback would mesh in Oakland, an in-your-face Gruden with the often-overly-respectful Carr. Well, it’s fair to say they’ve squashed those questions, and it seems they couldn’t blend along any better.
Carr has the changed diet, the pliability, the mobility, the mental capacity, the surplus of Gruden influence and the skills. Now we get to see if that hefty package translates into results. Because if it doesn’t, everything that’s changed with the Raiders’ starting quarterback in the past nine months won’t matter.
If franchise quarterback and rock-star coach can deliver wins to back up their words, however, everything Carr has done in 2018 so far might just be the beginning of a story to remember.
“I can’t say enough about him. He’s special, that’s all I’ll say,” Gruden said. “I’ve worked with a lot of really great quarterbacks in the past, but this guy is as into football as any guy I’ve met. He is talented and smart.
“If coach doesn’t screw him up, we have a chance to have a heck of a quarterback.”