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New standard for QBs means new standard for Derek Carr as a starter

And what’s up with no throws to his right?

Las Vegas Raiders v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

In 2017, a period of only three years ago, Derek Carr went to the Pro Bowl with a stat line of 62.7-percent completions, 22 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 6.8 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 86.4.

I don’t even expect most Raiders fans to defend Carr as a “Pro Bowl quarterback” with stats like this but what’s stranger is that Carr had a higher completion percentage than four other Pro Bowl QBs that season (Philip Rivers, Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz), had a higher net yards per pass attempt than Wilson and was roughly the same statistically as another AFC Pro Bowl quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

What Big Ben’s presence on this list for 2017 implies is that the AFC wasn’t bringing much heat to the party for the Pro Bowl that year. Indeed, Carr’s competition for the spot was Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Josh McCown, Andy Dalton and Jay Cutler. Now comes the connecting of the dots that won’t necessarily spell good news for Las Vegas:

If Carr beats out five players who as of today are either backups, out of the league or on a practice squad (McCown), then really how close is Carr to joining them and not the five or six other Pro Bowl quarterbacks in 2017?

Well, the reason for Carr keeping his job* and Bortles, Mariota and Dalton losing theirs is that his numbers did improve dramatically under Jon Gruden beginning in 2018.

That season, Carr posted a career-high in completion percentage (68.9-percent), yards per attempt (7.3) and of Oakland’s four wins that season, three came via game-winning drives by Carr. On a bad team, he was okay and was fifth in completion percentage. That seemed to be one area of strength for Gruden’s offense, if only the yards per attempt and touchdowns (Carr had only 19) were to go up.

And they did! A little!

*that and the five-year, $125 million extension he signed in June, 2017

In 2019, Carr completed 70.4-percent of his passes, the fifth-highest mark in history behind three campaigns by Drew Brees and one by Sam Bradford. He also raised his Y/A to 7.9, which is much closer to Brees territory than it is Bradford or Kirk Cousins (70.3-percent completions, 7.1 Y/A in 2018) territory. These would appear to be encouraging signs, but Carr only threw 21 touchdowns and he had eight interceptions.

A 21:8 TD:INT ratio is supposed to be pretty good based on the passing stats I’ve spent most of my life being accustomed to, but it was not good enough to keep the Raiders from giving Mariota $7.5 million for one season in an effort to see if one of the other AFC Pro Bowl candidates from 2017 would score more in Gruden and Greg Olson’s system. We’ve yet to get an answer to that because Mariota hasn’t played in a game for Las Vegas and based on Carr’s stats through three games, you’d think we wouldn’t see the Raiders move in that direction any time soon.

But I have two thoughts on this 2020 stat line by Carr:

74 of 100, 74-percent, 784 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 7.8 Y/A, 116.4 rating, five sacks, 8.28 adjusted net yards per pass attempt

Thought A: It’s good!

Thought B: Actually, is it?

If we were comparing Derek Carr’s 2020 numbers through three games to a quarterback of the past, we couldn’t deny the awe of seeing a player complete three-fourths of his passes in a 12-quarter stretch. But based on what we know of the NFL today, Carr may not even finish in the top-five of completion percentage.

And even if he did, so what?

The leader in that category is Philip Rivers, who is posting an unheard of 78.3-percent through three games. We’ll hear a lot more of numbers like this in the near future until the NFL changes some rules again. Despite this ridiculous rate, Rivers has only three touchdowns and three interceptions and he is only 19th in QBR.

Carr ranks tied for third in completion percentage with Teddy Bridgewater and they’re barely holding off fifth place Gardner Minshew. Ryan Fitzpatrick is seventh, Nick Mullens is ninth and Justin Herbert is 11th.

That would tell me that seven of the top 11 quarterbacks in completion percentage right now are not “elite” but more around the level of:

And I’m only excluding Brees as an eighth QB to hang out with Swaggy from Big Brother because of his automatic ticket to Canton. Rivers doesn’t strike me as that dangerous of a quarterback at this stage in his career. Herbert’s only played two NFL games. Bridgewater may have only been a franchise quarterback to the Carolina Panthers.

This tells me that completion percentage is not necessarily indicative of quality quarterback play, but instead is indicative of quality plays for the quarterback.

But what about the increased yards per attempt and lack of interceptions?

As to the turnovers, this again could play into the style of offense the Raiders run and the style of defense most teams are using in 2020, which is none. Carr is one of five quarterbacks to throw no interceptions on at least 40 attempts this season, and another seven quarterbacks have only thrown one.

The number of quarterbacks to throw 0-1 interceptions through three weeks is 12. That’s basically one-third of the NFL. We’ve now narrowed down Derek Carr to maybe being in the top-third of interception rate, which isn’t really impressive unless the offense and the passing attack is successful in certain situations, like third down and the red zone and the team is scoring a lot of points.

QBs who have 0-1 INTs and 6 or fewer TD: Carr, Brees, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Jimmy Garoppolo

QBs who have 0-1 INTs and 7+ TD: Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Ben Roethlisberger, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers

Which set of quarterbacks would you rather belong to? And is it concerning if your 29-year-old seventh-year QB has a completion percentage and an touchdown/interception rate similar to two NFL rookies, even if they’re pretty good for rookies?

As to his Y/A, Carr’s 7.8 would have been worth noting a few years ago. In 2018 it would have ranked as the 11th best and in 2017 he would only be .3 behind NFL leader Drew Brees. In 2020, Carr’s Y/A is 15th, tied with Herbert, Tannehill and Cam Newton, who the New England Patriots convinced to play for them for $1.5 million.

So my conclusion on Carr’s traditional stat line through three games is that I’m surprised it’s not that impressive. From ever to 2011, only two quarterbacks in history had completed 70-percent of their passes with no interceptions through three games. Only two. Then in 2012, Christian Ponder did it. Then in 2013 it was Peyton Manning. In 2015, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Just a group of guys trying to catch up to Christian Ponder. Then Jimmy Garoppolo with the Patriots in 2016, filling in for Brady. Then Alex Smith in 2017.

In 2018, it was Brees added to that list, then in 2019 it was Wilson and Mahomes.

Carr is the only quarterback to do it in 2020, but Gruden would exchange some incompletions for the additional touchdowns and general dominance of Mahomes, Rodgers, Wilson and Allen right now. The problem seems to be that Carr can only work in the short area of the field and that will prevent Las Vegas from being an explosive offense if it doesn’t change.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Carr is 14 of 14 on throws behind the line of scrimmage and 29-percent of those are going to his left, sixth-highest percentage in the NFL.

He is 47 of 58 on “short” throws (0-9 yards) and his 117 rating on those plays has really raised the overall level of his numbers. Carr is only directing 52-percent of those throws down the middle and only four QBs do that less often, including Brady and Rodgers and Carr is tied with Mahomes here. Comparatively, Deshaun Watson throws 80-percent of his short throws down the middle, whereas Brees is in a five-way tie for second place at 73-percent.

Now here’s the odd part.

Carr is only nine of 15 on intermediate passes (10-19 yards) and he has thrown 40-percent of those to his left; only Roethlisberger does that more often, going that way 50-percent of the time. Carr has thrown 60-percent up the middle and zero to his right.

Carr is the only quarterback in the NFL to not throw a 10-19 yard pass to his right. It is apparently not even an option in Gruden’s offense and the only other quarterbacks under 10-percent here are Newton, Herbert and Wentz. All three of those quarterbacks seem limited as passers at each particular stage in their careers.

Now Carr has thrown two deep passes to his right and had success on 20+ yard throws, but his eight attempts is below average. Rodgers has gone 10 of 21 on deep throws for a passer rating above 130, while Wentz has seen the pain of not being successful as a deep passer, going seven of 18 with a rating of 46.

The Raiders have gotten adequate plays from their deep throws but haven’t taken many shots. As it is, Carr ranks second in on-target throw percentage after only Wilson and he is avoiding bad throws, but these are to be expected from him by now. However, his 6.8 intended air yards per throw is 26th (behind Daniel Jones) and he is 28th in air yards per completion.

The team has also employed barely any play action despite the rest of the league trending that way. Carr’s 13 play action attempts is the fewest of any QB who has started three games except for Brees and it is eight fewer than Mullens, who has thrown less than half as many total passes as Carr.

The top five in play action passing yards are Allen, Goff, Tannehill, Dak Prescott and Ryan.

Ultimately, Derek Carr is mostly executing what is being asked of him, but the issue is that what is asked of Carr has not changed much in the last seven years. Even Gruden coming aboard and boosting his stats hasn’t had an impact on Carr’s ability to throw deep, to elevate an offense around him, to score more than a couple of touchdowns per game. It may not track in our heads that 74-percent completions and no interceptions isn’t indicative of great quarterback play, but we have to compare today’s QBs to today’s QBs, not to the QBs they were yesterday.

The Raiders have built one of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL. They’ve replaced the coaches and the GM. They drafted a running back and receiver in the first round and unearthed a couple of potential diamonds at wideout while also finding a tight end off the free agent pile who catches nearly every opportunity he’s given. They even moved to a new city that specializes in the art of the gamble.

And yet it could be that the only thing that has had an effect on Carr’s stats under Gruden is the way of the league.