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NFL Draft

Derek Carr’s Confidence Gives Raiders Chance Against Anyone

  • The Draft Network
  • October 13, 2020
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2013 was a long time ago. If asked you to recall something from over half a decade ago, it’s fair to need a little refresher on the matter, no matter what it is. 

Go ahead and open up a new tab, go to YouTube and type in “Derek Carr Fresno State Highlights.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I know, right? Who is this dude?

Back when Carr was wearing the red and white of the Fresno State Bulldogs, he was a gunslinger. In the years in which he had Davante Adams as his teammate, Carr set the college football world on fire. He threw for over 4,000 yards with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2012, and then in 2013 threw for over 5,000 yards with 50 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. In each of those seasons, Carr had completion percentages of 67% and 68%, respectively, and his yards-per-attempt were 8.0 and 7.7, which were still impressive given the number of throws he attempted in each of those seasons.

Carr was fearless. He had the arm, and he could make the defense cover every blade of grass on the field because of his mentality and skill to stretch the field. But that Derek Carr seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Almost like it’s hard to remember it even existed.

For a long time now, Carr’s narrative is that he can’t hit the deep ball. Through his first four seasons in the league, the once willing gunslinger from Fresno State had not recorded a season in which he had a yards-per-attempt average over seven. But has that lack of deep ball production been due to a lack of ability? The clips he’s put on film would tell you no. Instead, it’s been hesitancy from Carr to unleash his arm that has held him back, and something that has given him a game manager label while those who really believe in him hold onto the fact that he can be more.

So far in 2020, he’s proving those people who have stuck by him right with how he’s stretching the defense like never before since becoming a pro.

In his first two seasons under head coach Jon Gruden, Carr was efficient and calculated. He had career highs in completion percentage and near career lows in his interception rate. When I say that, I want to make sure it’s clear how big of a jump he’s made. In 2016 and 2017, Carr completed 63% and 62% of his passes. In 2018 and 2019, he completed 68% and 70% of his passes. Those are huge jumps in efficiency. He also passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of those first two seasons under Gruden for the first time since college, but much of that came from simple passes and great designs with Gruden coming aboard.

When it came to throwing it deep, Carr was still hesitant. According to Football Outsiders, in 2018, Carr was 25th out of 37 quarterbacks in the number of deep passes attempted (40), and in 2019, Carr was 24th out of 32 with even fewer (34). However, when it came to the accuracy of hitting those shots, Carr was eighth best in 2018 and 13th best in 2019. This once again showed that Carr could hit deep passes, he just wasn’t as willing to.

The Raiders have improved each year Gruden has been the head coach, but there was still room to get better—to attack. That’s what they’re doing in 2020; that’s what Carr is doing.

According to Next Gen Stats, Carr was 4-of-7 for 219 yards and two touchdowns on passes of more than 20 air yards (that did not involve a penalty) against the Chiefs in Week 5. According to Sports Info Solutions, Carr has only had 14 other games in his career since 2015 where he attempted at least six or more deep passes in a single game. In those games, he never finished with a deep ball completion percentage of over 50. So this past Sunday truly was the best of his career in total yards and efficiency when letting it fly.

I wanted to go over five of Carr’s eight throws that went beyond 20 yards in the air. One of the eight had a penalty with it, and the other was the Hunter Renfrow bomb at the very end that was cool but we really don’t need to examine further.

The pass shown above is Carr’s first deep attempt of the game. What I loved about this throw was when it happened in the contest. This was not only on the first drive, but it was on 3rd-and-10. Carr was sacked on first down, then the Raiders decided to run the ball on 2nd-and-11 because NFL play-callers love to waste downs. Then they dialed this up.

The reason why I like this throw so much is because Carr could have taken the mentality of the previous play and just said, “okay, we’ll go back to the drawing board next series. I don’t want to put us in a hole against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.” If you go into a game against Mahomes with that mentality, you’ve already lost. Instead, Carr took what I have to assume were the pre-game words his coach gave him to heart, which must have been something like “the only way we beat these guys is if we score early and often. We can’t be afraid of them, we have to attack them.”

This throw should have been six points, as wide receiver Henry Ruggs had two steps on his defender before slowing down to make an adjustment for the throw. But attempting this throw and hitting it gave Carr the confidence he needed to keep that attacking mentality alive throughout the game.

The clip above came two plays after that bomb to Ruggs in the first series. The set up was 2nd-and-8, and I was once again pleased with Carr’s willingness to attack the play that gave them the biggest payout when the situation was right.

The Raiders sent a player in motion pre-snap to help Carr identify the coverage. Once he moved his wide receiver and the safety followed him all the way across the line of scrimmage, he knew it was a man coverage shell. This was important because it allowed him to assess his potential risk/reward on the ensuing play. 

Carr had already hit one deep ball pass on this drive. In years past, perhaps he would have patted himself on the back and just played it safe after that. But that’s not what he did, and how this snap played out told the story of that.

With it being second down, a good gain, even if short of the sticks, would have put them in a favorable spot right inside the red zone with a good chance to convert on a third down; if not, a field goal isn’t so bad, right? If that is where Carr wanted to go, he could have targeted slot wide receiver Renfrow, who was running a variation of a dig route over the middle. He had some separation and in the past, I feel like that would have been Carr’s primary. But instead, Carr knew that the man in motion pre-snap rounding his momentum in a wheel route was going to make it awfully hard for the defender to keep up. He looked that way and let it fly, knowing that six points are way more valuable than three points against the Chiefs.

It was incomplete, but I loved the thought process. Some games you can dink and dunk your way to victory, but not against the best. Carr had that mentality on Sunday, and you love to see it.

Now, here’s the downside to an aggressive mentality: turnovers.

Carr threw his first interception of 2020 this past Sunday on this play above. In it, the situation was 3rd-and-1 still in the first quarter with the Chiefs up 7-3. When you watch this play unfold, Carr should have taken the dump-off pass to the running back for the short gain and a new set of downs. But instead, he had his eyes on a bigger prize and it ended up biting him. 

But that’s going to happen when you’re aggressive, and being aggressive is necessary. You have to be able to live with the bad knowing that the good can outweigh it.

What happened after the interception I thought was brilliant.

If I was just able to explain to you the narrative of Carr as a quarterback—him being hesitant to push the ball down the field for most of his career—then certainly NFL teams know that, too. What the Raiders did right after that interception was on the very next drive they opened things up with three straight runs. The first run went for seven yards, so it was easy to hand it off twice after that for a first down. But then following those three runs it was an easy dump-off pass for five quick yards to open up the playbook on second down, and then the fifth play of the drive is shown above.

The very next drive after Carr threw an interception, Gruden loaded up another chance for Carr to attack deep. He orchestrated that offensive drive beautifully to get the Chiefs back into their routine of how you normally play against Carr, and that play above was the perfect call against that mentality. 

With the motion before the snap, Carr could see the safety back up and not follow the receiver, so it hinted at some sort of a zone. The play call for that coverage was perfect, as a dig route over the middle combined with a post coming from the other side put the deep defenders in a blind. They took the bait on the shorter dig route, and that opened up the bigger throw down the field to Agholor. Carr saw it and didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. The result was six points.

For the next deep throw, we move to the second quarter with just over 3:30 left in the half. The setup was 3rd-and-2. The Chiefs were ahead on the scoreboard 21-17, but the Raiders weren’t backing down.

With the Raiders in a 3x1 bunch formation to the right side, the single-high safety decided to get real aggressive on a shorter route, believing Carr wouldn’t be looking to take a shot deep on 3rd-and-2, especially with the added pressure from the incoming blitz. Think about it. A failed deep pass meant the Raiders would have been punting back to the Chiefs with plenty of time to extend their lead before half. A conversion, even if small, would have kept them off the field.

But that’s playing scared when you have a better option deeper down the field, and Carr didn’t play this game scared. He saw the safety leave his deep zone, and when that happened he knew the corner had no chance of keeping up with Ruggs.

Carr was clearly in his own head during the early year of his career, but with Gruden, things seem different. They didn’t exactly have the offensive weapons they desired to really open things up back in 2018, but here now in 2020 they seem to have those pieces and are using them in ways that reap a big reward.

Carr is playing more confident than he ever has in his career to this point, and he’s giving the Raiders a chance to beat anyone any week.

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