Ailene Voisin

Raiders, Derek Carr protecting that MVP: Most Valuable Pinkie

The Most Valuable Player award isn’t high on the Raiders’ priority list right now. With the Christmas Eve visit by the Indianapolis Colts approaching, and the AFC West title within reach, their major worry is the condition of Derek Carr’s Most Important Digit.

That injured right pinkie is still in the recovery phase.

Though Carr and his coaches continue to downplay the injury, the Raiders have struggled in the red zone since their third-year quarterback dislocated the finger while taking a snap under center four weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers.

The ensuing 3-1 record is somewhat deceiving. The Raiders (11-3) were among the leaders in red-zone efficiency when their MVP candidate – that would be the dynamic Carr – got hurt. Since then, Oakland has scored only two touchdowns in its past 11 drives inside the 20-yard line. In Sunday’s victory at San Diego, they managed one touchdown and three field goals in seven red-zone trips and needed another fourth-quarter escape to overcome their longtime division rivals.

A botched snap. A fumble. An interception. And that sore pinkie is a major culprit. Because of Carr’s inability to get a strong grip on the ball, the offense has been limited to shotgun or pistol formations. The inability to initiate plays under center, particularly in the red zone, has a snowball effect on wet or dry fields; it becomes much harder to run power plays and can disrupt the timing on passing routes.

“We’re doing the best we can,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “We want to keep winning these games, and one of the factors in winning these games is ball security. That’s a real vital issue. The pinkie and the thumb are your locking mechanisms to hold onto a football, so when you’ve got a pinkie or thumb that’s injured, you have to be as smart as you can to secure the football. So we always want to ascertain how his finger’s healing and make sure that ball’s going to be secure, first and foremost.”

In other words, Carr’s MVP-caliber numbers and the Raiders’ impressive vertical game are dependent upon on how fully – and how quickly – their emerging star recovers.

This isn’t as significant an injury as, say, the broken knuckle Larry Bird suffered on his right index finger the summer before his rookie season. The longtime Boston Celtic adapted to his permanently disfigured finger and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career. But he has often wondered aloud: How much more efficiently would he have shot the basketball had he stayed away from the softball field that fateful day?

The impact of Carr’s injury – his trouble with accuracy and inability to put his characteristic zip on the ball – shows in offensive categories besides red-zone production. Notwithstanding the 38-24 win over Buffalo on Dec. 4, the Raiders the past two weeks have averaged 16.0 points, 4.4 yards per play, and 154.5 passing yards, well below the 300-plus yard outings Carr almost routinely produced before the Carolina game.

Asked about the finger, Carr smiles politely and declines to offer specifics or even acknowledge the hand is an issue. He deflects the questions by praising his teammates and enjoying the Raiders’ surprisingly successful season and upcoming postseason.

“What has it been, 14 years?” a smiling Carr asked reporters Sunday after orchestrating his seventh fourth-quarter comeback this season.

The victory over the Chargers was memorable for several reasons, some sweet, some bittersweet. It secured a playoff berth for the first time since 2002 and keeps that potential first-round bye alive. A victory over Indianapolis on Saturday in the regular-season home finale also would give the Raiders their best home record (6-2) since 2002, the year another freewheeling, charismatic quarterback – the rejuvenated Rich Gannon – led the team to the Super Bowl.

The bittersweet part? That would be the constant chatter about the franchise’s possible relocation to Las Vegas. Though owner Mark Davis has indicated a desire to execute two one-year leases and play at the Coliseum while a stadium is constructed in southern Nevada, nothing is guaranteed. Conceivably, Colts-Raiders could be the NFL’s grand finale in Oakland.

Or maybe not. After the Kings’ outcome, all of this stuff is too crazy to predict. But this much can be said with certainty: The Raiders are entertaining, surprisingly good and increasingly balanced.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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