With Their Season at Stake, Raiders Need to Find out Just Who Derek Carr Is

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 31, 2017

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr talks to reporters after an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.J. The Bills won 34-14. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Remember Derek Carr? You know, the 2017 MVP candidate and official Next Great NFL Quarterback, the man who was supposed to make the Raiders the top challengers to Patriots supremacy in the NFL? 

We haven't seen much of that Carr this year. The Derek Carr whose Raiders dropped to 3-5 against the Bills on Sunday was a jittery, off-target, turnover-prone wreck unlikely to appear on any awards ballots or in many playoff games.

So what happened to Carr? Did injuries take their toll? Is he sitting next to Matt Ryan in the New Coordinator Blues Saloon? Is it the supporting cast, the defense or the expectations? Or was Carr never quite as great as advertised in the first place?

"All of the above" may be an unsatisfying answer. But it's the correct one. A lot of little things have to get better for Carr to become the quarterback we all expect him to be.

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Injuries and pressure

Carr is playing with a transverse fracture in his back, which forced him to miss the Week 5 loss to the Ravens. Carr also missed the end of last season with a broken fibula.

It's not clear how much either injury is limiting Carr. What is clear is that Carr does not want to be hit, and the Raiders don't want him to get hit.

The Raiders have done a fine job protecting Carr since the back injury. According to the official play-by-play, he has endured just one sack and two quarterback hits in the last three games. But that protection doesn't just come from stalwart line play. The Raiders are running a quick-tempo passing game that gets the ball out of Carr's hand in a hurry but may not be well-suited to his skills or those of his playmakers.

According to Pro Football Focus (the source for all the following stat breakdowns unless otherwise cited), Carr's average time to throw in the pocket is 2.19 seconds, the fastest trigger in the NFL. By contrast, Eli Manning's time to throw is 2.45 seconds, even though Manning and his coaches fear on every play the Giants tackles will give defenders a pat on the head and an "I Sacked Eli" T-shirt instead of blocking. Carr's time to throw last year was 2.52 seconds—still quick but much closer to the league average.

On the field, those fractions of a second translate into lots of dinks and dunks as well as many of the ill-timed throws that fall just beyond his receivers' catch radii.

The breakdowns also show Carr is a different quarterback when rushed than he is when given time to throw.

Derek Carr's effectiveness drops precipitously when he's faced with pressure.
Derek Carr's effectiveness drops precipitously when he's faced with pressure.Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

Carr is rarely pressured, with defenders hurrying him on just 20.2 percent of dropbacks, the lowest rate among starters. Again, solid blocking and a quick-release scheme are working in harmony to protect Carr. But when that protection fails, Carr completes just 53.7 percent of his passes, averages just 5.1 yards per pass attempt, has thrown three interceptions and zero touchdowns and has negligible value as a scrambler.

Every quarterback is worse under pressure than in a clean pocket, but Carr is far worse. While Tom Brady can deliver precise checkdowns from a collapsing pocket and Russell Wilson can scramble toward a miracle, Carr has little chance of making something happen.

The issue is most noticeable when opponents do what the Bills often did: fake a blitz, then drop the would-be blitzers into coverage. Carr threw an ugly interception when faced with such a tactic against the Bills, then rushed a bunch of fourth-quarter throws. Whether it's the back, the leg or just a bad habit, Carr is starting to react to pressure that isn't there.


Drops, tips and fumbles

Dropped passes were a big part of Carr's early-season story. Amari Cooper leads the NFL with nine dropped passes; Jared Cook has dropped four and Seth Roberts three, according to Football Outsiders. Carr has had 17 passes dropped this season, tying him with Jay Cutler for the fourth-highest drop rate in the NFL.

The drops only tell a portion of the story. A short pass (slightly rushed and off target, but catchable) bounced off Marshawn Lynch's hands and into the arms of a Chargers defender in Week 6, killing a drive in the red zone. And the most devastating turnover of the Bills loss was neither of Carr's interceptions but DeAndre Washington's fumble after a reception, which the Bills returned for a game-changing touchdown. (Raiders backup EJ Manuel was also the victim of a fumbled reception for a touchdown, so this is a recurring problem.)

The inability of Amari Cooper and the Raiders receivers to consistently hold on to the football has plagued the Oakland offense all season.
The inability of Amari Cooper and the Raiders receivers to consistently hold on to the football has plagued the Oakland offense all season.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Dropped passes, deflected interceptions and fumble-sixes directly impacted the outcomes of the Broncos and Chargers losses and helped dig big holes for the Raiders offense in the Redskins, Ravens and Bills losses. It sounds like losing coachspeak to invoke "a play here and a play there," but both Carr and the Raiders would look a lot better if receivers were holding on to the ball.


System and support

While talking about a play here and a play there, we should examine what Carr and the Raiders are doing in short yardage situations.

On third or fourth down and three yards or less, Carr has completed just 4-of-14 passes for two first downs with one interception, according to Football Outsiders. That's a miserable conversion rate in makeable down-and-distance situations.

Film study reveals a rogues' gallery of dubious play calls: a telegraphed shovel pass to Cordarrelle Patterson, an empty backfield play (no need to threaten with Beast Mode on 4th-and-short, right?) where two receivers somehow run routes shorter than the sticks, a slot screen to Seth Roberts that loses two yards.

This is a schematic problem that falls on coordinator Todd Downing. Instead of relying on their three-headed backfield and offensive line in short yardage, even as a decoy or play-action threat, they are running plays Carr does not look comfortable with and counting on precision from a receiver corps with shaky hands.

When the Raiders give up the ball after a failed 3rd-and-short, they may not get it back for a long time. The defense has registered just five takeaways all season. The average opponent's drive travels 37.1 yards, according to Football Outsiders, which ranks 28th in the NFL. Opponents easily build leads and eat the clock against the Raiders defense, minimizing the potential for one of Carr's signature comebacks.

Those 2016 comebacks—seven of them, according to Pro Football Reference—cemented Carr's Next Big Thing status. But they should have set off a few alarms. The difference between a comeback and a loss can be a dropped pass, a defensive stop or something else well beyond a quarterback's control. Carr and the Raiders won by narrow margins last year. They were a great story, but they weren't built to weather a few bad bounces or breaks.


Expectations and reality

Carr is not having a terrible season. He threw for 417 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Chiefs less than two weeks ago. He started the year with strong performances against the Titans and Jets. He is hovering around the middle of the pack in every major quarterback metric or category.

Carr's ability to engineer comeback wins was crucial to the Raiders' success in 2016 but also revealed a tight margin for error that has hurt Oakland this season.
Carr's ability to engineer comeback wins was crucial to the Raiders' success in 2016 but also revealed a tight margin for error that has hurt Oakland this season.Adrian Kraus/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

But Carr has been inconsistent. He has played poorly in road games. And Carr passed the point where middle of the pack is acceptable with last year's near-MVP performance. So he's a victim of his own expectations in many ways.

That's the price of going from rising star to established star, with a $125 million contract to boot. Injuries, dropsies, hinky play calls and rainy Sundays are no longer acceptable reasons for failure.

After a trip to Miami to face the imploding Dolphins and then a bye week, the Raiders will host the Patriots. The remainder of their schedule includes the Broncos, Chiefs, Cowboys and Eagles. Their chance of surviving and reaching the playoffs is slim. But it's possible if Carr and the offense play the way they did in 2016.

"We've got to get back to doing the little things right, because that is the difference in this league," Carr said after Sunday's loss (via the Raiders website). "Everybody is talented. Everybody has good players and good plans. The thing that separates people is all of the little things leading up to Sunday."

It sounds like more losing cliches, but it's true. The Raiders' potential success will come down to some better 3rd-and-short calls, better ball security, a better Cooper (the worst of the drops are behind him) and a quarterback who is a little more comfortable hanging in the pocket and throwing in rhythm.

If they don't get the little things done, this will go down as a wasted season, and Carr may find it difficult to get that MVP momentum back.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.