Derek Carr is almost the perfect quarterback for the Raiders. He is an emerging star within the league, is respected in the locker room, and as a Central California native, is particularly sensitive to the plight of the fans in Oakland.
The fourth-year pro also is poised and confident, and just stubborn enough to avoid crumbling under the weight of the team’s unusual circumstances.
If Carr is as good as most experts believe, and develops into one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, the Raiders will be competing for Super Bowls while the movers are packing boxes for the one-way trip to Las Vegas.
The pending move is providing further motivation, perhaps even a sense of urgency, for Carr and other Raiders with strong Bay Area ties. The offseason signing of Oakland native and Cal product Marshawn Lynch, who came out of retirement to play for his hometown team, virtually guarantees daily reminders about the grim ending.
Carr, the team’s emotional anchor, is the franchise’s present and its future. He is also its highest paid player (with a five-year, $125 million extension), the one whose fractured right ankle resulted in a miserable finish to a successful season.
Before getting sacked by Trent Cole in victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Christmas Eve, Carr led his club to a 12-5 record and the first playoff berth since 2002. He directed seven game-winning drives – most in the league – and thrust the Raiders into the Super Bowl conversation for the first time since Rich Gannon’s meltdown against Jon Gruden and Tampa Bay.
With a healthy Carr – and better performances from a revamped secondary – the Raiders once again appear destined for the postseason. The acquisition of Lynch, along with the presumed return of left tackle Donald Penn to stabilize the highly regarded offensive line, suggests an even more potent offense than a year ago, when Carr completed 357 of 560 attempts for 3,937 yards and 28 touchdowns. His completion rate (63.8 percent) was second only to Tom Brady (67.4), and his interception total (six) also tied him for second in fewest picks, also behind Brady (two).
The challenge now is to continue his ascension. He more quickly reads defenses, is more efficient against blitzes, less frequently throws into multiple coverages. His connection with wideouts Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper also has improved.
“We’ve definitely grown in our relationship, and I feel he trusts me more,” said Cooper, a superb route-runner. “I definitely trust him more. He knows how I’m going to run my routes. I know how he’s going to throw every route.”
The next phase in Carr’s development is an important one. He has a tendency to throw flat-footed, which causes him to underthrow receivers. Cooper has talked about deeper throws and a desire to become a more frequent target in the red zone. The 6-foot-3 Carr, who has a compact, powerful frame, is intent on becoming more accurate and more mobile out of the pocket.
“I want to put stress on people, not only from the pocket,” he said. “Obviously I have been able to do that for three years, but if I can break contain, if I can see, it makes it easier this year because the game’s slower. I know what route beats that coverage, and as soon as I see it, if it’s not there, then I can make something happen with my feet … move out and extend plays.”
One thing Carr will not do is predict that his Raiders will run off with the AFC West title. A certain team in Kansas City keeps getting in the way. The Raiders have dropped five straight games to the Chiefs and quarterback Alex Smith, a reality that surely tempers expectations.
“We didn’t even beat Kansas City twice last year,” Carr said. “So I don’t understand why everyone is so excited. I understand the excitement of the people that we have, but I don’t understand the excitement of how we finished.”
The ending, indeed, was quite the dud. Backup quarterback Connor Cook, who is battling EJ Manuel for the No. 2 spot, was understandably, but undeniably, overmatched in the playoff loss to Houston. Presumably, Carr will be healthy and available this year, and ready to flourish at the finish.
So again, as Carr goes, so go the Raiders. The clock is ticking in Oakland.