When Derek Carr senses weakness, when he smells blood in the water, the momentum is palpable. He fist-pumps, violently. Screams, loudly. Saliva spews from his mouth, and those baby blue eyes burn.
His belief he'll prevail is downright contagious.
His belief is an extension of the most diabolical competitor of this generation.
Since anyone can remember, the Raiders quarterback could not get enough of Kobe Bryant. He was addicted to the fadeaways at the buzzer, the snarl, the scowl, the villain persona. Carr first met his idol in junior high before a Lakers-Rockets game in Houston and, for Christmas, his brother David gave him a signed Kobe jersey that still hangs on a bedroom wall.
Eighty-one? The five championships? Carr was glued to it all. Whereas Kobe repeatedly annihilated one high school teammate in games to 100—their closest duel being 100-12—Derek never has a problem throwing disrespectful jams over nephews half his age.
So there was Carr last season, after the first of seven fourth-quarter comebacks, declaring to the masses that he's driven by a "Mamba Mentality." And moments later, the self-anointed Black Mamba approved on Twitter.
When an actual black mamba bites, you collapse in 45 minutes. Fail to treat the bite and, good night, you'll die in seven hours. This venomous snake found in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the deadliest creatures on Earth.
That's Kobe. That's Carr.
The quarterback sank his fangs into opponents all season. Until, well, he was bitten himself. On Christmas Eve, Carr was sacked, told everyone in earshot "It's broke. It's broke!" and that contagious belief he built throughout the team was smashed to smithereens. The Raiders knew the moment Carr broke his fibula they were done. Anything to the contrary is PR blather.
"I've never felt the wind sucked out of a team like that," running back Jalen Richard says. "On the sideline, the wind was just pulled out of everybody. All of us saw DC and were like, 'This can't be happening.'"
Now the NFL's Black Mamba returns.
Think the New England Patriots have no challengers in the AFC? Think again. It's Oakland. It's Carr. Mamba wannabes come and go. So many players claim to have killer instincts, but Carr is the closest the NFL has to Kobe. Everyone in his natural habitat, from Fresno to Oakland, has seen this Mamba grow...and grow...and knows what's coming next.
As offensive coordinator Todd Downing speaks after one August practice, Carr rolls around on the grass with his son. Carr doesn't swear. He's a devout Christian. His normal disposition is more day care supervisor than assassin. But Downing knows there's Mamba blood running through his veins.
"He wants to go down as the best quarterback to play," Downing says. "And he understands how far that goal is, but he also understands the work that goes into it. When he compares himself against the greats, he knows it all starts with winning this year."
With a historic contract—the richest in NFL history—comes historic expectations.
The bar is set high.
"He can be," Downing says, "one of the greatest of all time."
That was the singular focus that fueled Bryant for 20 seasons, and you're damn right it's the focus that drives Carr today.
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Birth of the Mamba
College is where Carr truly discovered and nurtured and fed his inner Mamba. He wore all emotions on his sleeve—always—and it had a profound impact on everyone around him.
Teammates all remember precisely how they met Carr. Wideout Isaiah Burse was on a recruiting visit; Fresno State had just waxed UC Davis in 2009 when the then-No. 2 QB beelined in his direction in the locker room simply to say, "I can't wait to have you out here." Linebacker Ejiro Ederaine was at the bookstore, looking lost, when Carr recognized him and introduced himself. Fresno State cornerback L.J. Jones, a Los Angeles native, kept most teammates at a distance on campus. Until he met Carr.
"No matter if you were black, white, Chinese, green, blue, whatever," Jones says, "he was cool with everyone. Derek was someone who'd actually sit down and talk."
Teammates listened, watched, followed.
This is how Carr builds a belief.
On the field, he then played an entire season with a sports hernia. The injury zapped his mobility. He was sacked 26 times. He didn't say a word.
"I never heard him say, 'Ah, take me out!'" teammate Josh Harper says. "It's very painful, but at the same time, he was out there every day, every practice, no reps off. Still working hard."
Adds then-Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter: "He's got that thing in his mind that tells him nothing matters except for this moment right now. Pain? It doesn't matter."
Carr had an aura, players repeat, a glow about him. They believed they'd score every time they took the field. So there was Fresno State, exploding for 69 points the game after Carr spoke up in a players-only meeting. DeRuyter assures they could've scored 100 if his starters played in the fourth quarter, too.
Two "Mamba Moments" always come up: the Nebraska Flip and the Wyoming Pancake. The former—Carr completely horizontal, diving for a touchdown—is now blown up as a picture in his home. Seconds before the latter, Fresno State running back Robbie Rouse told Carr he needed to see a highlight. And as the lead blocker on a reverse, Carr uprooted a 250-pound defensive end.
"Derek killed him!" Rouse says. "When you have your quarterback selling out for you, making plays like that? If that can't get you excited, I don't know what could."
The two still banter on Twitter about that play.
On the Court
Of course, at "The Rec," Carr didn't quite endear himself to teammates.
Basketball exposes us all in our most primitive state. It's the nature of the sport.
You bet Carr is Kobe-ruthless.
It wasn't Staples Center, no, but pickup games on the Fresno State campus were heated. And this is where one athlete, above all, had the best Mamba perspective: NBA star Paul George. He lived peak Mamba. George guarded the man with the go-for-the-jugular temperament. And George confirms that, yes, there certainly is a Black Mamba sequence in Carr's competitive DNA.
"Yeah," he begins. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Derek is a fiery guy. He has that passion. He has that fire. He plays with that edge. I definitely see that he has that Kobe mentality in him."
OK, so Kobe demeans players on the court in "You motherf--kers are soft like Charmin out in this motherf--ker" fury while Carr leads Bible studies off it. Nobody can remember Carr swearing. Ever. Not once. Only loud variations of "Darn!"
But the competitive mentality? Exactly the same.
After football practice, Carr would usually start by bragging to anyone in earshot, I'm a shooter! I have the best jumper on this team! Someone would challenge him, he'd bark back, Let's see! and the two would head to the gym. Whenever George's Fresno team wanted to play pickup, Carr wanted a piece of them, too.
"Let's kill 'em!" Burse says Carr would shout. "I don't care if they're basketball players!"
The last thing you wanted to do was talk smack. Carr would, on the spot, leave his man to guard you and make your life a living hell. One common victim was Anthony "Town" Johnson. If Town started hitting jumpers and letting folks know, bam, Carr switched to him.
"He'd harass him! He'd harass!" Burse says. "The dude couldn't even get open. He wouldn't care about anybody else on the team."
Harper guarded Carr dozens of times. He says the QB planted himself in the corner to launch threes...and he always had to take the game-winner. Ederaine likens Carr to Chris Paul, calling him a "facilitator" with a "fire." Whenever the Raiders enter the fourth quarter, that look in Carr's eyes is just what Ederaine remembered at The Rec.
No, no, no. Paul George makes it clear his basketball team never lost to Carr's football team.
But, heck yes, Carr is wired like the NBA's third all-time leading scorer.
"He's always, since Fresno, been confident," George says. "He's always carried himself very, very professional. He's always been a great leader since Fresno. Now, he's really taking his game to the next level. He's become a student of it. You can tell he does his film.
"You can tell he really locks in."
When the Mamba Strikes
Carr won't chat, but that's fine. Richard provides a spot-on impersonation.
Sitting on a bench at the Raiders' outdoor weight room—right where Carr throws up one-armed dumbbells after practice—the running back pops up into a power stance.
He bites his lower lip, balls one hand into a fist and starts smacking his other hand.
Here's what Carr looks like on those game-winning drives.
"He's got the swag. He's got the sauce to him," Richard says. "The Mamba used to do that bite. He'd bite that lower lip. ... In those moments, man, DC is a different cat. His aura. We feed off his aura. He comes out like 'OK, guys, you know what time it is.' ... We're in the huddle and he's telling us, 'We can do this.' And we're looking at him like, 'Hell yeah. Let's go take care of this.' It's a look. His demeanor. An aura."
That killer instinct cultivated at Fresno reached a new level in the pros. He puts his own profanity-free "twist," players say, on the Mamba Mentality. He's humble yet doesn't play humble. He plays angry. Pissed. With swagger. And that's the weird thing about Carr. He was this same way through the 10 straight losses to start his pro career.
It didn't turn off veterans, either. Left tackle Donald Penn, eight years older, loved it.
Instead of curling into the fetal position, loss after loss, Carr barked orders.
"We went into every game thinking we could win with him. He gave us that mentality," Penn says. "When we go into those last drives, there's no fear in his eyes. He's ready to go win. And when we see that, we're ready to go win with him.
"He's always had that mentality—'I can do anything. I'm confident. I don't care what anybody says.'"
There's no statistic for this, no metric that reflects how his belief becomes your belief. But it does. And it's why this franchise comprised of so many spare parts—D-II gems, reborn vets, a 39-year-old kicker and two potential Hall of Famers (Marshawn Lynch, Khalil Mack)—has gone from laughingstock to the team now most equipped to slay the Patriots.
They started to believe.
Trace back to the game that elicited Carr's declaration, the first comeback. On Oakland's 15th offensive play of the 2016 season, Carr flicked away Saints end Paul Kruger, tucked the ball, sprinted toward the first-down marker and leaped over De'Vante Harris in a Superman-esque front flip that has no doubt resulted in cervical fusions for those before him. When Carr jolted to his feet, he tomahawked a "first down" with his arm that nearly took out Roman Harper.
After the win, running back Latavius Murray made a point to tell his quarterback that those plays inspire.
"Teammates see that," says Murray, who now plays for the Vikings. "They're sitting there looking like: 'Do I need to go out there and flip? I'm not doing enough.'"
Richard felt the same guilt.
"That set a tone for us all year. S--t, DC's jumping? S--t, all right, let's go! I'm with you," Richard says. "He's all for great sportsmanship, but when he's on that field, he's going to compete, and then he's going to rub it in your face. Just like any competitor would, and that's the Mamba. He's going to let you know, 'I'm here all day.'
"We feed off that, man."
The result is an energy force so many other quarterbacks try, and fail, to manufacture. Ask the Jaguars, Vikings and Browns, who all passed on Carr.
"It's just a knack," Richard says. "DC has a knack for when the game is on the line, he freakin' shows up. He could've had a bad game all game...when you have a guy on your team like that, that when it's crunch time you know he's going to be on the money? That makes you say, 'S--t, I've got to be on the money, man!'"
Richard also knows that Carr wants to be a pastor with his own church one day. They've already discussed taking mission trips together, making tentative plans with teammate Karl Joseph to head to Joseph's native Haiti. That Carr talked about wanting to help other people immediately after signing a $125 million deal made some players do a double take—they're not sure they would've said that. Then again, this is someone who spoke to player...after player...after player about winning in the playoffs minutes after his own season ended.
If football ended tomorrow for Carr, Richard says, he'd be perfectly fine.
Then, Richard clenches those fists again. His eyes blaze. Carr isn't done yet.
Raiders receiver Seth Roberts thinks Carr is more LeBron James, more maestro getting everyone else involved. "And LeBron is getting everybody paid around him!" he says. "You feel me?" Richard, a fellow Kobe connoisseur, knows better.
"That cutthroat mentality? Hell yeah!" he says. "Kobe didn't care who was in front of him. He didn't care if it was his idol, Jordan. He was going to come at your neck.
"You can see it in Derek."
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The Mamba's Next Move
The scene at Raiders training camp boggles the mind. This is a franchise abandoning its fanbase for Las Vegas. It has decided to ditch spiky, hoarse, face-painted diehards for tourists. The bachelor party will soon be the Raiders' target audience.
Yet as Carr steps up to the line of scrimmage at practice—rolled-up sleeves putting those softball-size biceps on full display—the bleachers in Napa are packed to capacity.
"Rayyyy-dahhhs!" they scream for two-plus hours. "Rayyyy-dahhhs!" They hold signs. They cheer. Carr later says it blows his mind that so many adults can get out of work to be here. In truth, this atmosphere is merely an extension of the belief Carr creates.
It's now the final 11-on-11 period of the day, a chance to bring everyone here to their feet.
Carr drops back, has his man and...throws a pick-six.
OK, so maybe this comeback won't be so easy.
It's time to unleash bloody hell on opponents, but this egregious, albeit meaningless, error was a friendly reminder just how difficult it is to be the Black Mamba. Some counts say Kobe Bryant drilled 36 game-winners, but he missed many, too. The pressure of the contract clashing with the pressure of carrying another leaky defense clashing with the potential turmoil of these fans losing their team could veer Carr down a reckless path.
Everyone around the quarterback sees him reacting only one way.
Rouse, who stays in touch: "For him to have a taste—it's like he had a steak on his plate and was ready to get to the good part of it, and then somebody knocked it off the table. That's how he feels. He's ready to finish that full steak now. ... When you think of the best future quarterback in the NFL, you can't think of anybody but Derek Carr."
Downing, the OC: "The way last year ended left him completely unsatisfied. He wants to get back there."
Roberts, who'll see more balls as the No. 3: "He wants to be the best, and he is going to be the best. Day in and day out. It never changes."
Safety Reggie Nelson, who's in his 11th year: "He leads by example, and when he gets on you, he gets on you. He's way beyond where he needs to be with the number of years he's been playing. When he grows up, he's going to be...he is a great quarterback right now."
Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, who's met Carr many times: "The intangibles set him apart. For a young quarterback to become such a good leader for the team—he plays with a lot of passion. That rubs off on a lot of his teammates. ... More of the same. He'll be even more motivated and determined this season."
Richard, biting that lip: "I see DC every day. Yeah, I would say DC is the best quarterback in the league. And I feel like he plays with that demeanor just like anybody should and would."
Fully expect to see Carr go airborne again when a first down or touchdown is in sight. Nobody senses hesitancy in his game. The future pastor has been at work all summer, Downing assures, "investing" in teammates. He's always in the ear of Lynch, of tight end Jared Cook, teaching the nuances of this offense.
Carr has the keys this season. Downing will let him change more plays before the snap.
Here's one thing Downing will never do: debate the best basketball player of all time with his QB. To Carr, it's no contest.
"He loves Kobe," Downing adds, "and he definitely wants to emulate that tenacity and ferocity that Kobe had his whole career."
At the podium, Carr reflects on his appreciation of two good legs. It killed him that he wasn't able to help his kids if they fell in January. Now he can. And on the field, he says he's having more fun than ever.
But, no, he doesn't have a clue why he's so clutch late in games.
"I wish I had a secret or something to tell somebody," Carr says.
Of course he wouldn't know. It's part of who he is.
He's the NFL's Black Mamba.
And he's back.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.