Jon Gruden’s top priority with his return to coach the Oakland Raiders again was getting quarterback Derek Carr to play at or above the level at which he played in 2016 when he finished third in NFL MVP voting.
That season Carr completed 52% of his deep balls for a rating of 117.6 and improved his rating under pressure to 70. Under new offensive coordinator Todd Downing in 2017 he completed just 35% of his deep balls with a quarterback rating of 71.4 while his rating under pressure fell to 40.8. These are two stats QB’s have to do at least reasonably well in if they are going to successfully carry their teams.
In the first four games of this season, Carr has thrown it all over the yard for 1,373 yards and completed 66.7 percent of his deep balls for a 98.6 rating on such passes. On the other hand he’s thrown an NFL-leading seven INT’s to just six TD’s while his rating under pressure is just 35; a major reason the Raiders are 1-3 right now.
This is the start of a rebuild which includes the reprogramming of Carr in a complex offensive system. Pressure speeds QB’s up through their progressions and Carr is in a new system so his mind hasn’t caught up yet. There are also miscommunications due to the system being based on reads his receivers have to be on the same page with.
“There has been a lot of work put in by everybody, not just me,” Carr said Wednesday. “We’ll have one or two here where we’re still learning stuff or like ‘oh man, we have to cover that more or let’s talk about this situation more.’
“Through the first four games, we’re knocking some rust off, we’re knocking some things off that we’re learning on the fly. At the same time, I still feel like we’re doing some good things, moving the ball-wise and completing passes, running efficiently, protecting. All the things that are important and not easy to do. I feel like we’re in a good place, but I still feel like we could be a lot better.”
Another part of the problem that has nothing to do with the system is Carr’s ball-placement, which hasn’t been nearly on the level of 2016.
That season he was throwing dimes all over the field but especially in the red zone and his back-shoulder fade’s were right up there with the best QB’s in the NFL. Carr also led his receivers perfectly to the back line of the end zone, where only his guy can get it.
He had his issues in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns including throwing a couple of picks. But he seemed to start getting his groove back during that game, throwing four TD’s.
He threw a dime to WR Amari Cooper, another to WR Jordy Nelson and two to tight end Jared Cook. That dime to Nelson for the 2-point conversion to tie was reminiscent of the one he threw to Michael Crabtree in 2016 against the New Orleans Saints. His TD passes also show he’s getting the ball-placement back that was completely missing the first three games. This is important because 38 points the offense put up against the Browns raised their points-per-game average from 17 to 24.25 points per game at the quarter-mark.
Gruden can still game-plan and coach with the best of them but needs Carr, who’s learning his fourth offense in five years, and the rest of the offense, to catch up. Defenses have made things difficult, speeding up Carr’s progressions with pressure. The Raiders still have work to do in that department but the Browns game showed they’re getting closer.
“There are some things that me reading body language and knowing how they run routes and things like that has helped,” Carr said of his progress with his receivers. “There are still things that is new stuff we haven’t done before. Obviously, some of us have done it at one time or another but not together. With all the adjustments and things that coach puts on us, there’s absolutely a learning curve even though we’ve been together for a while.”
So have they learned enough to beat the Los Angeles Chargers?
Carr is 8-4 against in 12 games over his career against his AFC West rivals. He’s completed 62.3 percent of his passes against them for 1,891 yards, 13 TDs, 7 INTs and a QB rating of 89. While Cooper averages 20.6 yards per catch with three touchdowns in 10 games against them.
The Chargers have the No. 21-ranked pass defense thus far, giving up a QB rating of 100.9. That is by the worst pass defense the Raiders have faced this year. So the Chargers defense may be just what the doctor ordered for Carr to build on his Week 4 performance and win.
For the Raiders to have a chance to win, it will likely be a shoot-out with the defense they have.