People have been calling American Football “a passing league” for about 20 years now. The faces of the sport since the turn of the century have almost all been quarterbacks. Only three of the last 20 league MVP’s have played any other position, and of the last 20 first overall picks, 15 were quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have claimed 30 of the 54 Super Bowl MVPs, and no other position has more than seven. So it’s a bit understatement to say that the starting quarterback plays a big part in the success or failure of his team.
Enter Derek Carr, the franchise leading in passing yards for the newly christened Las Vegas Raiders. On the surface, a perfectly capable, if unexceptional quarterback. The franchise has endured some brutal quarterback play over the years, and in comparison, the Fresno State alum is remarkable. So why then, is the NFL’s most passionate fanbase, the Raider Nation, so divided about him? Let’s take a closer look.
Derek Carr: The Most Divisive Quarterback Alive
To be honest, I think Carr’s critics are probably more frustrated with him because of how proficient he’s been, at moments, in the past. In 2015, only his second season in league, he threw a career-high 32 touchdown passes. The year after, the Raiders won 12 games, almost completely because of the offense, and he was a bonafide MVP candidate.
Even during 2019, Carr had his moments. There was a five game stretch in the middle of the year where he was completing 71% of his passes for an average of 275 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions a game. He even had a rushing touchdown in there. That run included a three-game winning streak, a loss against the Houston Texans that wasn’t his fault, and a blowout in Green Bay that wasn’t as bad as it looked.
Carr’s supporters point to streaks like this, as well as his second and third seasons in the league, as reasons to believe the Raiders have their franchise quarterback. And if we’re being honest, it’s not like he’s had the easiest ride. There have been a number of roadblocks for this Carr.
The Usual Suspects
Defense and Rushing Offense
Derek Carr’s Raiders have been flawed teams. On average, during his tenure with the team, they’ve had the 23rd ranked defense, and the 21st ranked rushing offense. Last year’s squad, which was 25th in passing, 24th in points allowed, 29th in interceptions, and 24th in sacks, is the best defense Carr has ever played with. The only year the Raiders finished top ten in rushing was in 2016, and the team won 12 games.
His offensive lines have been up and down, ranging from elite in 2016 to giving up 51 sacks in 2018, and until the Raiders signed Trent Brown, the squad had a revolving door at right tackle. This is important, as Derek’s brother, David Carr, was best known for being one of the most sacked quarterbacks in NFL history.
Carr’s targets (Carrgets? Tarrgets?) haven’t been great either. Even when he had Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Seth Roberts, they had a nasty penchant for drops. In 2018, his receiving corps ended up being made up of players like Jordy Nelson, Marcell Ateman, and Brandon LaFell. It was so bad that tailback Jalen Richard ended up leading the team in receptions. Last season, he was supposed to have Antonio Brown… but we all know how that worked out.
And honestly, the biggest issue Carr has had? Has been coaching changes. He’s had four different head coaches, and three changes at offensive coordinator in his time with the team. That means he’s had to learn four different systems, and he’s only had two opportunities to play in the same system consecutively.
These are the excuses. If you’re a staunch Carr supporter, you’re probably really enjoying this article. You’ve been screaming this from the top of every rooftop for as long as you can remember, and it’s vindicating to see all the evidence that Carr is a good quarterback put together like this.
But that’s honestly the biggest problem. Carr is a good quarterback. But he’s not great. And in the eyes of many, he’s doing the team more harm than good. After all, there are tons of great quarterbacks in the NFL who overcome adversity, typically without this many excuses.
Good Enough isn’t Good Enough
What you’ve read so far is every excuse in the book for why Derek Carr isn’t a great quarterback. He hasn’t had good enough lines, good enough receivers, good enough defenses, consistent coaching, he’s been injured, he’s had to overcome adversity just to produce at the level that he has.
But Derek Carr isn’t the only starting quarterback in football on a flawed team. There are players like Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson, who also haven’t had consistent receivers. Guys like Deshaun Watson also haven’t had great protection. We’ve watched Carson Wentz battle injuries, while still putting up stellar numbers. Matthew Stafford has been on some really horrendous Lions teams, but he’s still managed to produce consistently. Kyler Murray had a “decent’ rookie year, but his final statline and win total strongly resembled Carr’s.
That’s not a joke, Carr averages 3,799 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions a season. Kyler Murray threw for 3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions this year, adding 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
Now, it could be argued that it’s a case by case basis. A lot of the quarterbacks I mentioned have better weapons or coaching, that it’s unfair to expect Carr to be able to do all of this by himself. And you’d be right, except for one thing. The money.
Derek Carr is being paid like a franchise quarterback. He’s due the tenth most of any quarterback in football this season with $21,500,000. That’s nearly 10% of Las Vegas’ cap space for 2020. The only other Raider making more than 15 million dollars this season is right tackle, Trent Brown, who we can all agree has earned his keep. Make no mistake, I understand how the quarterback market works, I’ve written enough articles about it, but there’s some subtext to receiving a deal like that.
If you’re the highest paid player on the roster, you better be the best player on the team. With more money comes more responsibility. If you were the highest paid person at your job, and you weren’t performing up to the standards expected, would your boss make excuses for you?
The highest paid defender on the Raider roster is safety, Lamarcus Joyner, who is due $9.2 million against the cap this season. He’s the only defender even sniffing double digit millions, and he’s making less than half of what Carr is due this year.
Fans will make excuses for bad spending. I spoke out against signing Robby Anderson, and they pointed to a salary cap that grows annually and the substantial cap space that the Raiders have this year as justification for frivolous spending. I disagree. I think it’s better to make smart investments over time than to get locked into contracts that prevent the team from improving down the road. And this is a big problem for Carr in my opinion.
The Bitter Truth
Carr needs a perfect environment to succeed. He needs a productive run game, great receivers, solid protection, and a good defense. If you give him all of those, he can produce at a high level. But to me, that raises a very difficult question. Under those circumstances, wouldn’t most quarterbacks succeed? A younger, cheaper quarterback? Someone who might have a higher ceiling?
Trent Green was a Pro Bowl quarterback, so was Andy Dalton. Those are just two that come to mind, there was also Matt Cassel, Vince Young, Derek Anderson, even Trent Dilfer. History is littered with mediocre quarterbacks that played well on loaded rosters. Being transparent, I think Derek Carr is better than all of the quarterbacks I just mentioned, but it’s the point that matters.
Couldn’t the Raiders move Carr for draft capital, free up the cap space, and commit to building the rest of the roster? It’s far more likely that the Raiders won’t be perfect, and Carr won’t thrive, than it is that they’ll magically have a perfect squad one of these years.
The Bottom Line
Like the last Star Wars movie, Derek Carr is nowhere near as good, or as bad, as people will tell you he is. If given to someone like Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan, Derek Carr could be among the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But for me, it’s hard to watch, year after year, as other teams reverse their fortunes by moving onto a younger, better quarterback.
Baltimore swapped out Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco for League MVP Lamar Jackson. Kansas City traded out very-good Alex Smith for best quarterback in football, Patrick Mahomes. This year alone, the Tennessee Titans refused to accept Marcus Mariota‘s continued mediocrity in favor of Ryan Tannehill‘s hot hand. It’s not a new trend either. The Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers with Brett Favre on the roster. The Patriots had just extended Drew Bledsoe when they chose Tom Brady.
Maybe the Raiders will trade Carr and draft a bust. Most fans remember JaMarcus Russell pretty well, it’s entirely possible the team drafts someone horrible. But if we’re still sitting here in 2021, and he hasn’t taken a playoff snap, even after the team undoubtedly doubled down on getting him weapons, and he’d spent three years in Jon Gruden’s system? Then this has all been a waste, and the Raiders have missed out on several opportunities to get better.
Because maybe the Raiders will trade Carr and draft a bust. But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll get the NFL’s next big deal and we’ll usher in Las Vegas with something to be excited about. For those saying there’s “No Patrick Mahomes” or “No Lamar Jackson” in this draft, I’d remind you that neither man was considered a safe pick coming out of college.