Derek Carr Spoils Jon Gruden's Impressive Coaching Return

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 11, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 10:  Derek Carr #4 of the Oakland Raiders speaks with head coach Jon Gruden during their NFL game against the Los Angeles Rams at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 10, 2018 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Maybe, just maybe, Jon Gruden still knows what he's doing. Instead, a mad genius seemed to emerge during his first game as a head coach since the 2008 campaign, only to be ruined by the play of quarterback Derek Carr. 

The Oakland Raiders are far from perfect. Monday's 33-13 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum said as much. But Gruden's squad proved to be far more competitive than expected and didn't look like a complete disaster. 

It's not a high bar, one earned after months of mystifying decisions. 

Gruden is the personification of the NFL's counterculture after signing a 10-year, $100 million contract to return to the Raiders organization.

At his NFL Scouting Combine press conference, the coach, who left the sidelines nine years earlier to join the Monday Night Football booth, joked about "trying to throw the game back to 1998" when asked about analytics usage, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken

Oakland's approach to free agency turned the coach's comments into something more than a joking matter as the franchise undertook a George Allen-esque retooling, making its roster the league's oldest, according to the Philly Voice's Jimmy Kempski

These moves became appetizers for the entree: trading the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack, to the Chicago Bears. Oakland's return on the deal is immaterial because it moved an elite performer in his prime at a premium position just nine days before the start of the regular season. 

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden
Oakland Raiders head coach Jon GrudenBen Margot/Associated Press

Gruden serves as the organization's shot-caller, and he didn't help matters when he stated during an ESPN interview aired Monday, "Obviously, Khalil Mack didn't want to play here."

All of this built over weeks and pointed toward a coach who lost touch with the modern game. Yet the Raiders came prepared to face one of the NFL's best teams to open the season. Eventually, the Rams' talent overwhelmed them, but not without a fight. 

During the first half, Oakland looked like a completely different team compared the squad that finished 5-11 a year ago. 

Gruden's play-calling doesn't seem to have faded, either. The coach allowed his talented offensive line to take over by implementing a physical, downhill rushing attack that further accentuated Marshawn Lynch, and Beast Mode took over to score the game's initial touchdown with a Juggernaut-like determination: 

The Raiders offensive line went toe-to-toe with the Rams defensive front and didn't blink despite staring at Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers. Los Angeles managed one sack, and Donald didn't even register a quarterback hit. 

The game plan worked for the first 30 minutes. Gruden utilized tempo, spread looks and misdirection to complement his traditional West Coast passing attack. Getting the ball into the hands of playmakers served as the primary goal.

In one area, the Raiders were wildly successful. Tight end Jared Cook—one of 15 players on the roster at least 30 years old—set or tied career highs with nine receptions for 180 yards. Cook proved to be too much for the Rams safeties and linebackers to handle. 

Also, the early portions of the game saw Carr get the ball out of his hand quickly and decisively.

Oakland led 13-10 going into the third quarter before everything started to crumble. The deficiencies still found in the Raiders roster began to show.  

Bruce Irvin and Co. generated one sack and another quarterback hit. That's it. Jared Goff had all night to throw, and the only sack came from the quarterback drifting backward into Irvin after holding the ball too long. The rookie triumvirate of Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall and Arden Key made little to no impact. The lack of a pass rush will likely haunt the Raiders throughout the season. 

Even so, Carr's disappointing performance is the most disheartening aspect of the loss. Raiders owner Mark Davis made Carr a $125 million quarterback in the 2017 offseason, and his play didn't come close to reaching his worth. 

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr
Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek CarrThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

All three of Carr's interceptions can be placed directly at the quarterback's feet. He underthrew Cook near the end zone, and safety John Johnson came down with the ball.

In the second half, Donald collapsed the pocket, Carr threw a lollipop off his back foot with no receiver in sight and linebacker Cory Littleton easily intercepted the pass. Finally, the quarterback made the right read and tried to lead his tight end only to throw the ball into Marcus Peters' waiting arms, which turned into a pick-six

Carr managed 303 passing yards yet barely acknowledged his weapons at wide receiver. Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and Seth Roberts combined to make five catches for 43 yards. 

"We called their numbers," Gruden said after the game, per the San Jose Mercury News' Matt Schneidman. "We tried."

The 55-year-old coach is famously tough on his starting quarterback, and Carr described the challenges, or lack thereof, working with his new head coach in July on the Jim Rome Show

"We are so similar. It's so funny. When he was going to be a coach, the No. 1 question was like, 'How are you guys going to get along?' And both of us would just sit there and laugh together. ... We love football. We want to win. We love to compete. We love to demand from one another. I demand from him, he demands from me. I'm in his ear every day, 'What do you have for me today?' 'What are you teaching me today?' And he's in there pushing me. I can complete in practice—go 30 for 31, we'll spend an hour talking about that one I missed and how it can be the difference in a game. And that's exactly how I want it."

The two are going to have plenty to talk about this week since Carr's decision-making and overall performance weren't good enough. 

"Losses with Coach Gruden feel a little bit different than they've ever felt before," Carr said, per Schneidman

Does this mean the Raiders would have won if their quarterback didn't make as many mental mistakes? Probably not.

However, solid play at the game's most important position, a roster that can compete and a coach embracing modern offensive elements will make the Raiders a tough out against any opponent. They showed exactly that for two quarters Monday night. 

The Rams are a better team right now. That's OK, since the Raiders don't seem to be hopelessly lost with Gruden leading the way. 

          

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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