It isn’t easy being Derek Carr, the most targeted player on the NFL’s worst team.
He’s defended himself against accusations that he shed tears on the football field and a report that his relationship with teammates has been fractured. He’s been sacked 28 times while the Raiders have sunk to the league’s cellar at 1-8 as they prepare to face another struggling team in the 2-7 Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Glendale.
Yet somehow, the 27-year-old quarterback remains perpetually upbeat and optimistic, a tall task for a human facing constant adversity, let alone an NFL quarterback under immense fan and media scrutiny.
Aside from Carr’s well-documented religious beliefs, what could make someone so steadfastly optimistic? One man, a former special teams coach at Fresno State, unknowingly bestowed Carr with coping machinery for this season. His name is John Baxter, and he currently serves as special teams coordinator at USC.
Baxter’s philosophy: Celebrate all wins, big or small.
In a season of only the small kind, Carr has had to fall back on this philosophical approach often.
Baxter coached Fresno State’s special teams in 2009, Carr’s freshman season there in which he threw only 14 passes. Baxter gave his special teams unit a “constitution” he’s used at every coaching stop since 1995. Carr sat in the back at only one such meeting every week, but he absorbed the message when he did.
“One thing that always stuck out with me is (Baxter) would get on people and he would demand from them, but he would always, always celebrate the things they did right, even if it was just like the right footwork and it had really nothing to do with the play,” Carr said. “He would always celebrate all those little things. If we won the kicking game, he celebrated the kicking game. Even if we lost the game, he was always doing that.
“I always thought that in football it’s just demand, demand, demand and then when I saw that side of him where he would demand and then also celebrate the things you did right, it made guys feel like, ‘Oh man, I wanna do more for him. I wanna do better for him.’ It just always stuck with me.”
Some players might be turned off by Carr’s unrelenting positivity during such morbid times, but those three words plucked from random special teams meetings nearly a decade ago help the quarterback maintain his own peace of mind and share it with willing others.
When a report surfaced last month critical of Carr’s relationship with teammates, tight end Lee Smith mounted a forceful defense of his quarterback.
“The fact that Derek Carr is the best man and the best Christian man I’ve ever known in my life does nothing but make him a better leader in this locker room,” Smith said. ” … Being a good man doesn’t keep you employed in the NFL. We’re not here to win popularity contests. We’re not here to be good samaritans. We’re here to entertain people and win football games, and it’s a production-based business. But Derek Carr is a great football player. There’s a reason he’s got a captain’s ‘C’ on his chest. There’s a reason he’s got a $125 million contract.”
Carr has looked beyond the scoreboard for victories this season, more so than in years past. For example, Jon Gruden challenging an unnamed player during the week before the Chargers game and that player responding on Sunday brought Carr satisfaction.
On Wednesday, Carr spoke positively about the mental toughness of rookie left tackle Kolton Miller while playing through injury, the improvement of newly promoted rookie wideout Marcell Ateman and how first-year Raider Brandon LaFell’s versatility has impacted the receiving corps. Those may not matter in the short term, but Carr values each for their potential long-term payoffs.
Other small wins Baxter preached: Taking the right first step when the ball is snapped, breaking a route with the proper footwork and other intricacies that don’t appear in a box score. Carr has trained himself to value such minute accomplishments more in 2018, if only because it has prevented him from combusting.
“One of my longstanding statements is, ‘Remember that all huge success is just a big stack of little wins. And when you stack your little wins tall enough that somebody else can recognize your pile, you’re probably having some success,’” Baxter said. “You can have three weapons in this game: your eyes, your feet and your hands. And when you use each of those weapons correctly, those are all little wins … The big wins come as a result of the building blocks.”
That’s what Carr hopes happens with the Raiders, who despite stacking little wins during the week, have yet to grab more than one concrete victory on game days.
“He’s done some really good things under some really difficult circumstances,” Gruden said. “He’s going to continue to get better and better as we get better around him.”
Carr’s continued pursuit of capturing wins that matter in the standings may only succeed if he keeps valuing ones that don’t.
However cliché Carr’s coping mechanism sounds, re-visiting those 2009 college special teams meetings helps maintain sanity amid this season’s misery.
“It doesn’t matter how good it is, how bad, you celebrate all wins,” Carr said. “So anything where a guy triumphs in something, you win on a play, or you win a game, you celebrate all things. It’s so hard. This business will test your character. A lot of our guys are finding that out right now.”