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Derek Carr is excelling on third down in 2019 — Why does he seem to play so much better on the money down?

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The Raiders QB seems like a different player on third down, but he might just be the idealized version of himself in that situation

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was short and sweet on Friday in his final regular season press conference before what is likely the final game of the 2019 season. He answered one question, and it was about what makes Derek Carr so good on third down.

His response:

“Surprisingly, he just plays his best football in critical situations. I mean, I don’t know what the numbers say, but he’s audibled, he’s made accurate, tight-window throws. That’s a tough down to throw the ball on for sure. I just think the moment, the bigger the moment, the better he plays.”

There a number of different possibilities for what makes Carr great on third down. One is the solution Gruden offers, that he just plays better in key situations.

It is hardly a phenomenon unique to Carr. In fact, it’s a well-chronicled tale that some football players just play better on third down. It is at once hard to fathom, yet helpful to know that Carr rises to the moment when it’s most needed.

The apprehension about lauding a quarterback with the stigma of playing best on third down is the notion that the best teams avoid third down altogether. For instance, the four conference finalists from a season ago ranked first through fourth in fewest offensive third down opportunities.

While the Baltimore Ravens have gained notoriety this season for being aggressive on fourth down, the reality is they are the number one offense because they don’t see third or fourth down all that often—only the Washington Redskins have authored fewer third down attempts, and they’re near the bottom in any and all offensive efficiency rankings. The Raiders have attempted 14 more third downs than the Ravens, or almost one extra per game.

Yet, third down remains an important part of who wins and loses on Sundays. It’s certainly better to be good on third down than to see the down as an opportunity to go back to the bench and talk to the offensive coaching staff.

Thanks to pro-football-reference, we can look at the data for Carr based on down-and-distance, similar to the way a West Coast Offense-inspired team like the Raiders would call plays.

Looking at the splits that way, Carr indeed excels in third- and forth-and-short situations most. On third- or forth-and-short, Carr has a 137.8 QB Rating and eight touchdowns while converting the first down on 26/27 pass completions. Similarly, on third-and-4-6 yards, Carr has a 135.0 QB Rating. He has thrown one pick in that situation, but has converted 34/39 completions into first downs. On third-and-7-9, Carr’s rating drops a bit to 111.0, but he still has converted eight of 13 completions, and eliminated the turnover. On third-and-10-plus, the first down numbers drop, but the completion percentage remains intact.

Given Carr’s reputation as a cautious ball control quarterback I am less concerned with the incompletions on those downs. The interesting part is that he maintains a relatively high conversion percentage even when playing “behind the sticks”.

He’s obviously doing something right, as Gruden alluded to, in terms of picking out the correct receiver and hitting him accurately in stride, even if his air yards/attempt (for all down and distances) ranks him 27th in the league, and his deep ball attempts ranks him 25th, according to playerprofiler.com.

Though not a third down, the accuracy Carr shows on the throw below perfectly exhibits what makes Carr a better than average NFL quarterback.

Another possible theory to explain why Carr excels on third down, is because the Raiders are outdated—relative to the rest of the league—in regards to their first, second, and third down run-pass tendencies.

With Carr knowing each week he’s primarily going to throw the ball on third down, he can dive deeper into the third down game plan each week. Of course this is not to say that he prepares less for Base, or Red Zone situations—the other two days of a West Coast practice schedule—only that he is focusing on the minute details in the passing game, whereas in the other two specialties, he might be more focused on making sure his team is set up with the right run play.

That’s just a theory. Even if I myself believed it wholeheartedly, there is almost no way to prove it. The reality is he’s a more accurate passer in most first- and second-down opportunities. Another theory emerges then.

He is more willing to take chances on third down. This would be analytically sound, if true. A study done this past offseason showed that teams who threw to, or beyond, the sticks were more successful offensively than teams who threw short on third down.

That seems to be true when he is facing six or fewer yards to get the first down. But the percentage of conversions on completions goes down as the yardage to gain goes up.

What have learned here? Not much. There’s a lot of interesting information, and some theories. But there is nothing definitive about why Carr excels on third down. Or even that he in fact does.

Carr is more efficient on third down. That much we can say for sure.