The Oakland Raiders are 0-6 and marching steadily toward 0-16. If there is a win on the schedule, it isn’t clear against whom it will come. The Raiders already fired head coach Dennis Allen, and general manager Reggie McKenzie could be on his way out if things don’t turn around quickly.
Few general managers survive a season like the one the Raiders are having, but even fewer lose their job the year after finding what looks to be a franchise quarterback. Looks can obviously be deceiving, which is why quarterback Derek Carr’s continued improvement will be necessary if McKenzie has any prayer of keeping his job.
Arguments for and against McKenzie will be made over the next few months, but finding a franchise quarterback is like a trump card. Carr’s play can buy McKenzie another few years at the helm, because a franchise quarterback conceals a multitude of mistakes.
As Carr improves, so should the Raiders' odds of winning. Even a few wins could make all the difference for McKenzie and likely won’t affect the draft order in a significant way.
Carr has already come a long way in six games as a starter, but he’s far from perfect. The Raiders have to make building on Carr’s strengths and eliminating his weaknesses a priority over the last 10 games.
One of the primary criticisms of Carr coming out of college was his ability to handle pressure. It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to struggle with pressure, but it obviously makes a huge difference when they can perform under duress.
Early on, Carr had his fair share of struggles under pressure, which confirmed his college scouting report. Part of this was Carr getting the right protections called so there wasn’t a free rusher coming at him, and part of it was simply him learning to step away from pressure. Carr has improved in both areas in recent weeks and needs to keep it up.
On a key 3rd-and-7 down 14 points with less than five minutes to play in the first half last Sunday, Carr demonstrated his newfound ability to step away from pressure and deliver accurate passes. The Raiders needed their quarterback to make a play, and Carr delivered.
Prior to the snap, Carr knew he was either going to hit tight end Mychal Rivera running left to right as three receivers clear out the defenders against Cover 3, or the seam route splitting two zones. Carr had to read the coverage after the snap and make a good decision to extend the drive.
The Arizona Cardinals blitzed from the left edge and dropped two defenders on the opposite side to match the Raiders' numbers. Both defenders ran deep with the receivers on that side, leaving Rivera all alone running across the field.
It wasn’t as simple as Carr making the right read, he also had to step away from quick pressure up the middle. By stepping up in the pocket away from the pressure, Carr not only was able to find Rivera, but he also had plenty of running room had the Cardinals covered better on the play. Had Carr hesitated or tried to bail out of the pocket in any other direction, the Raiders likely don’t get the first down and have to punt.
Carr demonstrated the ability to step up away from pressure multiple times against the Cardinals, so his development in this area is not simply a fluke. Carr is getting more comfortable in a dirty pocket, which will help him have more success on third down going forward.
On this play, Carr steps away from pressure and throws incomplete deep right for wide receiver James Jones. The officials threw a flag and called defensive holding on the Cardinals, so it was a successful play for the Raiders.
At times, Carr isn’t going to be able to find open wide receivers even after stepping up in the pocket. Oakland’s wide receivers simply aren’t getting open with enough consistency to help Carr in all of these situations. By stepping up in the pocket, Carr also gives himself the opportunities to make plays with his legs.
Although he didn’t get the first down, Carr stepped up away from pressure and tried to run for a first down on 3rd-and-7 at the start of the second quarter. The Cardinals had Oakland’s receivers covered, and there was quick pressure on Carr off both edges. A defender tripped Carr just short of the first down, but his legs gave the Raiders the best chance to convert.
Carr’s arm strength has never been in question, but his accuracy at the pro level was inconsistent in his first several starts. Carr can make throws few quarterbacks can make when he’s accurate.
On a key 3rd-and-10 with the Raiders down 14-10 in the third quarter, Carr not only demonstrated his ability to step away from pressure, but also his arm strength and accuracy. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew whiffed on a block and forced Carr to step up in the pocket before making the throw.
Carr zinged the pass 13 yards deep to Jones, who fought off tight coverage to make a back-shoulder catch. The coverage was so good that Carr’s window was barely bigger than a single football in width, but it arrived quickly and accurately, and Jones made the nice catch.
These special traits could make Carr a force in the league if he can develop the rest of his game and the Raiders can put some talent around him. The Raiders have to be pleased with Carr’s ability to throw accurately and into tight windows, and it’s tough to imagine where Oakland’s offense would be without this ability.
Carr’s ability to step away from pressure and deliver accurate passes with velocity allows him to have some success, but to take the next step he needs to be more consistent in his progressions. Carr still occasionally locks onto one receiver, and he is missing opportunities as a result.
By staring down one receiver, either Carr misses an open man or he allows the defense to adjust and make a play on the ball. Carr had both problems at various times against the Cardinals.
On an important 2nd-and-9 in the third quarter down 14-10, Carr was determined to hit fullback Jamize Olawale despite a lurking linebacker. Carr had a wide-open receiver between the linebacker and the deep safety, but he decided to force it in for a shorter gain.
The pass was complete, but Carr missed an opportunity to get a first down. It wasn’t the worst mistake he could make, but it suggests that he predetermined where he wanted to go with the football instead of manipulating the defender to get what he wanted.
With the Raiders down eight points in the fourth quarter, Carr’s eyes again gave away where he wanted to go with the ball. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie read the play, drove on the pass and broke up a pass intended for wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
Carr isn’t a finished product yet, but he’s already made huge strides in terms of dealing with pressure. When Carr learns how to manipulate defenses with his eyes, he has the talent and skill to be a very dangerous quarterback.
By not telegraphing some of his passes, Carr should be able to help his receivers gain some separation. If he can do this, instead of Carr taking risks deep or having to fit passes into very tight windows just to get a completion, Oakland’s receivers may be able to get more yardage after the catch.
It’s still too early to say Carr is Oakland’s franchise quarterback, but he moves a step closer to that every week. His statistics have fluctuated, but that’s not indicative of his progression. Carr certainly deserves the time to develop into the quarterback the Raiders hope he can be.
If Carr can continue to develop over the final 10 games, he’ll save a few jobs in Oakland. With a little luck, Carr’s progression may also help the Raiders net a couple of victories.