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Sunday afternoon, Derek Carr stepped to the podium to address the media following his team's 34-20 win over the visiting New York Jets. It's a place he had stood following a win six previous times in his young career, but there was something different about him this time. There was an easiness about him. One might even call it a swagger; albeit a more casual swagger.
Derek Carr has always claimed to have confidence. And in some regard he always has. This was different. There's a saying in the NFL; "act like you've been there before." That's how Carr entered the room. Like he'd been there before. Not the room. But the room as a franchise quarterback coming off a win.
This particular win came in commanding fashion. It also came on the heels of a similar performance in San Diego the week before. And before he even answered a question, he had already answered several other questions with his performance on the field the past two weeks.
This offseason, Carr took more of a leadership role, something he had said he didn't feel as comfortable with as a rookie. Now he is the glue that holds the Raiders locker room together and keeps them on an even keel.
"There's been times when guys get excited and all that and there's time when guys get too low and I tell them all the time, ‘Hey, just stay like this.'" Carr said Sunday following the win over the Jets. "Because if you start going up and down with this game, you'll be a head case because there's too much of that. We just have to keep down. And as long as our head is down and we keep the same routine every week. Keep your routine, and if there's something you can get better at, change your routine. Make it better. But don't get caught up in all the stuff that happens outside of this."
Fans love to say ‘I told you so' when the quarterback for the team they love proves himself. Then again, a fan will say that about just about every unproven quarterback who steps behind center for their favorite team (Terrelle Pryor, anyone?). To believe it strongly and to know it for certain are two very different things. Now we know - Derek Carr has arrived.
A rocky rookie season for Carr saw the Raiders start 0-10 and finish with three wins on the season - a season total which the Raiders surpassed last Sunday after just seven games. I am not one to attribute wins directly to a quarterback, and I am not doing that now. But there are moments in these wins and losses when Carr has had the chance to put the team on his back.
Last season, there were just two games which you could point to and say Carr put the team on his back. The first was the shootout in week five against the Chargers which the Raiders ended up losing. The other was the week 16 win over the Bills.
This season, you can in some way directly correlate the Raiders win to Carr in three of their four wins. The week two win over the Ravens saw Carr throw for 351 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a late game-winning drive. The other two have been the past two games.
This offseason Carr mentioned that as a rookie, things came at him so fast and the season being a week to week thing made it hard to really work on the areas which needed improving. You could see right from the start of this season, he had used the offseason well and had improved in several areas.
There was still one throw he was struggling with and it was his deep ball. He has all the arm strength to do it, but for various reasons wasn't leading the receivers down the field. He was either not trusting his protection to let the play develop, not stepping into his throws, not seeing his receiver until it was too late, and/or simply misjudging it. The result was receivers who were open long who had to slow down or even stop to wait for the pass.
At the bye week the Raiders were sitting at 2-3, having lost their last two. They were showing signs of good football, but even their two wins were nail biters against two of the worst teams in the NFL.
We didn't really know what to expect from the Raiders coming out of the bye. And even though the Chargers had just two wins on the season, they were coming off a close loss to the undefeated Packers at Lambeau in which Philip Rivers threw for over 500 yards. Granted, that number has nothing to do with what Derek Carr was expected to do against their defense, but what we got was entirely unexpected.
Carr went off and the Raiders jumped out to a 37-6 lead early in the third quarter over the Chargers. In the process, Carr was 23 of 28 for 280 yards and 3 touchdowns with a passer rating of 144. And perhaps the most telling of all was the perfectly placed deep pass to tight end Clive Walford for a 23-yard touchdown that may as well have been 73 yards because Walford caught it in stride and was scoring from any distance.
It was a remarkable pass, but it was just one, so no definitive theories could be formed from it. So, Carr did it again the next week. This time it was Andre Holmes up the right sideline for a 49-yard touchdown. Again, perfectly placed, in-stride long ball for the score. And not once in the game did he have a man streaking down field have to slow down and wait for the pass.
He has also improved under pressure. Here are his stats against the blitz last season vs this season as compiled by ESPN Stats Inc:
2014: 50% comp pct, 8 TD, 22.5 Total QBR
2015: 60% comp pct, 6 TD, 76.6 QBR
"Most offenses welcome the blitz." Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said Thursday. "If we can be good against the blitz and make them pay for it, then we'll get down to the end zone a little quicker."
Musgrave also pointed out that part of the success of the offense has been Derek Carr making good decisions. He is doing less forcing balls to covered receivers that he did last season and even earlier this season. Musgrave reminds us that there will be "shaky" time ahead as well for his second-year passer.
"He's not always going to be as perfect as he has been these last two weeks with no turnovers, but confident that he's a good learner from his experiences," Musgrave added.
There's a saying that I will paraphrase that says ‘If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.' That is never more true than playing quarterback in the NFL. If a quarterback isn't constantly working on his game and staying one step ahead of the defenses, they will catch up to him. We've seen it play out far too many times (the recently benched Colin Kaepernick is a great example).
If a quarterback is to take a leap in progress, the biggest leap usually occurs between year one and year two. We have seen that leap in Derek Carr and we are now seeing him make progress on the fly, as the season goes along; something he couldn't do much of as a rookie.
As the fourth quarterback taken in the 2014 draft, he is the first to prove he will be the long term answer at quarterback for his team. Teddy Bridgewater, who was taken three spots ahead of him, joined a better overall team in Minnesota and showed promise as a rookie. But this season Carr has quickly passed him by.
Now we are seeing a collective mea culpa from those around the league who had Bridgewater as showing more promise heading into this season. First it was an NFL.com panel who had Carr 4-2 over Bridgewater as the best quarterback in the NFL under 25, then a week ago - before the Raiders big win over the Jets -- Gregg Rosenthal put Carr in his top ten quarterbacks, saying "Carr is having the season I expected Teddy Bridgewater to have. He avoids sacks, doesn't get too high or too low. Most weeks are so clean you can eat off his box scores."
That could have something to do with Carr's numbers this season which compare closely to that of Aaron Rodgers:
Carr: 15 TD, 3 int, 1793 yards, 65.5% completion
Rodgers: 15 TD, 2 int, 1568 yards, 67.6% completion
Rodgers is widely considered either the best or nearly the best quarterback in the league. And their transitions to starting NFL quarterback couldn't have been more different. Comparing their numbers in a vacuum over the first seven games of one season doesn't mean Carr is on that level yet. We must see sustained success before they can be truly in the same category.
What we can say with utmost confidence is the Raiders have their franchise quarterback.