Derek Carr's hand looked like the mangled weather vane you find in a field after a tornado splinters the old barn. His pinkie was like a Christmas tree ornament-sized rendering of Joe Theismann's leg.
"Probably some of the worst pain I've felt in my life," Carr told reporters after his Raiders squeezed past the Panthers Sunday, 35-32. Well, of course, it was. Ruthless criminals in movies break fingers to get information, after all. If Carr's pinkie had fallen off and rolled away with the football that dislocated it, the injury would have been only slightly more gruesome.
You know how this story ended. Carr missed one series with what turned out to be two dislocations in the pinkie of his throwing hand. He returned to the game wearing a thick black glove that looked like the kind that makes it hard to grip a snow shovel. Instead, Carr gripped a football and began threading needles and pinpointing passes. He led a touchdown drive and threw a two-point conversion to tie the Panthers in the fourth quarter. Then he threw two passes to Michael Crabtree, a bomb and a back-shoulder trickshot along the sideline to set up the game-winning field goal.
As defining moments for a season go, Carr's pinkie pulverization and fourth-quarter comeback are almost too obvious to mention. MVP voters who needed a signature display of toughness and greatness before pushing Carr to the top of the ballot now have one. There's something undeniable about watching a quarterback lead his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the year when he should be waiting for treatment at the Bay Area Clinic for Digital Reattachment.
Carr shouldn't need a freak injury to punctuate his MVP resume. The comebacks alone should have made his point for him. But quarterback comebacks bring some built-in skepticism. If the quarterback is so good, why does he have to come back in the first place?
Carr worked much of his comeback magic against unfamiliar foes in Sunday early games, when even his West Coast fans were just getting around to their morning coffee. It's easy to assume that a comeback against the Ravens or Buccaneers is just one so-so team outlasting another. But you can't ignore a GIF that makes you reflexively grab your own hand and grimace, nor the gutsy excellence that followed. It forces you to pay closer attention to the facts.
Carr has completed 67.0 percent of his fourth-quarter passes this season, with nine touchdowns, 10 completions of 20-plus yards and a whopping 121.3 quarterback rating. Those statistics don't include Carr's 163 overtime yards and game-winning touchdown against the Buccaneers. How does anyone throw for 163 yards in one overtime period? It requires excellence from the quarterback, penalties and missed field goals from everyone else.
Carr has thrown 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions with the Raiders trailing this year, completing 66.5 percent of his throws, averaging nearly eight yards per attempt and generating a 113.9 rating. So Carr isn't leading Tim Tebow-style comebacks, fueled by tight defense and 55-yard field goals. The Raiders defense, though talented, hands out long touchdowns like free samples at the food court. Carr is usually playing for his life in the fourth quarter. And he is not always getting the support of his receivers. According to Pro Football Focus, only Matthew Stafford has suffered more dropped pass than Carr this season (28 to 26; two other quarterbacks are tied with Carr).
No matter how you slice the stats, Carr excels under the toughest circumstances. He has a 98.9 passer rating on third down, which is impressive. He has a 143.8 rating on fourth down, which is otherworldly, including three touchdowns, two of them longer than 20 yards, on five total attempts. Carr's 4th-and-3 overtime touchdown to Roberts against the Buccaneers was a special moment. So was his 21-yard, fourth-down teardrop touchdown to Crabtree against the Chargers, or the fourth-down slant to Crabtree that briefly tied the Falcons game at 21. And then there was the two-point conversion to beat the Saints.
Carr has been stockpiling MVP plays all year. But the Raiders ultimately lost to the Falcons, the Bucs game is remembered for all the penalties and Raiders-Chargers games might as well take place on Pluto as far as the East Coast audience was concerned. Carr needed a stand-up-and-notice event—something emotional and visceral, something that gave him a little mystique.
This year's MVP race is tight, and all of the contenders bring not just credentials, but a narrative. Tom Brady brings the Deflategate revenge tale, and is also Tom Brady. Dak Prescott is an after-school special, The Kid from Nowhere Who Saved America's Team. Ezekiel Elliott is the strutting lead guitarist in Prescott's band, which also features an amazing five-piece rhythm section. Before his dud performance on Sunday, Russell Wilson was the hero of a bullet hell video game, dodging a zillion enemies to complete weekly levels.
Carr was the guy leading the Raiders back to relevance for the first time in over a decade. But he was also still the pint-sized squirt at his big brother's shoulder in the 2002 draft to fans who didn't watch the Raiders often. That was the Carr hook as recently as last Monday night's Raiders-Texans broadcast. Remember when David Carr played for Houston and Derek was a plucky lil' preteen?
Enter the double-dislocated pinkie.
Maybe Carr won't earn the MVP award, despite all the fourth-down and fourth-quarter heroics. The Raiders are also likely to fall short somewhere in the playoffs. Brady will pick them to shreds, or Antonio Brown will do donuts through their secondary, or inexperience will get the better of everyone, including Carr, when the organization reaches the playoffs for the first time since Frasier was on the air.
But Sunday's comeback defined much more than an awards race for Carr and the Raiders.
There's a point at which a Great Young Quarterback overcomes adversity, sheds the developmental training wheels and becomes a Great Quarterback. For Cam Newton, it was when he returned from the 2014 truck accident to lead a winning streak. For Wilson, the switch truly flipped last year when the Seahawks line caved in for good and he was forced to win games with his arm from the hypothetical pocket instead of running options while the defense stomped on opponents' throats.
That threshold moment will someday come for Prescott, probably when Elliott is unavailable, the offensive line is banged up and the local press is speculating about his personal life. Until then, Prescott is an impressive caterpillar. So was Carr, even as he led all those comebacks in the first half of the season.
This defining moment stuff may sound like a cross between symbolic juju and sportswriter myth-spinning, but if you don't believe in it, go check on the careers of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Mark Sanchez and others. There is a point when the expectations rise and the road gets rougher, a time when youth and inexperience cease to be excuses forever. Only the best quarterbacks make it past that point.
Carr finished that journey to greatness on Sunday. Everything he has done so far is just the beginning. Now, things really become interesting.