Derek Carr of the Raiders had such a fabulous, ridiculously clutch final drive on Thursday night, and I cannot let it pass without paying homage to the 26-year-old quarterback. This drive could become a defining moment in his ascending career.
“That drive,” the color man who did the game, Tony Romo, said Saturday night, “sent a message to his teammates and his coaches. He’s not a kid anymore. His poise, the throws he made the with their season on the line—and I had people say before the game, ‘Their season’s not over if they lose,’ but come on, as a player you know this was as must-win as any game you’ll play this season—showed that they’ve got a player now who can win any game.”
Think about what Carr did 18 days after breaking three bones in his back, with the Raiders’ season on the line, trailing the no-doubt best team in the division—Kansas City—by six, with 1:47 left in the game, on second-and-20 from the Oakland 20.
At that moment, the Chiefs were 5-1, with a three-game lead on the 2-4 Raiders. What made the situation more dire for Oakland: Games away from home loomed against Buffalo, New England (in Mexico City), Kansas City and Philadelphia in the last 10 games. A fifth loss, and the playoffs would be nearly an impossible dream for Oakland, as Romo said.
I count four huge, winning Carr throws in the last 107 seconds of this game. With the season on the brink, Carr made four throws that no quarterback past or present could have placed any better, or made any more confidently. I find that extraordinary. With the kind of pressure Carr was facing, he made throws that were textbook, and if any one of them failed, there’s a good chance the Raiders would be 2-5 and playing for 2018 this morning. The throws that saved Oakland’s season, with videos here:
• First throw, second-and-20, Oakland 20, 1:47 left. With cornerback Terrance Mitchell singled against Amari Cooper in the left slot, Cooper ran a skinny post, trying to bisect two deep safeties. About 10 yards into his route he deked left, and Mitchell bit; that was enough for Carr to think he had the space to parachute a deep throw. The ball traveled 44 yards in the air, perfectly thrown and timed, and got to Cooper a second before the safeties converged for the tackle. “The level of difficulty on that throw is off the charts because of the danger involved,” said the last Raiders quarterback to win the MVP, Rich Gannon. I reached out to Gannon on Saturday to dissect the final drive. “Such a tough throw to make.” Gain of 39.
• Second throw, fourth-and-11, Kansas City 42, 0:41 left. With nickel safety Eric Murray on tight end Jared Cook, Cook drags Murray on a short post from the left slot, and Carr hits him perfectly in a hole in the middle of the defense that—uncharacteristically for smart defenders like Kansas City’s—was just too big. Gain of 13.
• Third throw, third-and-10, Kansas City 29, 0:23 left. The play looked ugly from the start, two Raiders receivers flooding the same area inside the 10 on the way to the left pylon. Carr let it fly, and Cook skied above three others (two Chiefs, one Raider) in his area to come down with it, and he sprawled into the end zone a yard to the left of the pylon. Replay would show him down at the half-yard line. “Unbelievable throw,” Gannon said. “The routes were run right; somebody got it wrong. But it’s right about that time you think he’s like Michael Jordan used to be at the end of games. You know, everybody get out of the way, get out of the lane. Let me handle this.” Gain of 28.
• Fourth throw, first-and-goal, Kansas City 2, 0:00 left (untimed down). After three accurately called penalties turned the final seven seconds on the clock into some Bizarro Football World event, Carr lined up in shotgun. Michael Crabtree was the key receiver to his left, Cooper to his right. We’d learn this later, but the Oakland offense had a roll-right red-zone play in the game plan, but not a roll-left here. Carr thought it best—I’m assuming because he trusted the physical Crabtree on lesser cover men than Marcus Peters on Carr’s right. Carr took the snap and rolled left. “I was thinking when I saw that, ‘Oh no, what are they doing?’” Gannon said. “The sprint-right option is such a better play for him. On a scale of difficulty going to the left, it’s so easy to miss that throw, because it’s not a throw you normally make.” The throw was laid into Crabtree’s gut in the end zone, just beyond the left pylon. (Man, that pylon got a workout in the last 23 seconds.) The PAT gave Oakland a 31-30 win.
The first victory of Carr’s career, in 2014, came over the Chiefs, after an 0-10 Raider start. Since then he’d lost to the Chiefs in all five starts—by 18, 14, six, 16 and eight points … 0-5, by an average of 12.8 points per start.
In the giddy Oakland locker room, coach Jack Del Rio put Carr’s feat in perspective thusly to his team: “When you got a triggerman like DC, we’re gonna win a lot of games.”
“Poise is so important,” Romo said. “You think you’ve won three times, and you gotta come back and do it again.”
“He saved the season,” Gannon said. “Think of the range of emotions in the last 10 seconds. First you think you’ve won; the coaches take their headsets off. Game over. But the refs put the ball at the one. Then you get what you think is the winning TD to Crabtree, and you got offensive pass interference. The ball’s back at the 11. Now you think it’s gonna be really hard to win. Then on the last play he rolls left and throws the game-winner. Derek never blinked. What strong inner confidence he has. Hopefully the offensive coordinator [Todd Downing] learned something in that game. He’s been taking some criticism, and he should. This is my belief: In critical situations, you cannot think about plays. You have to think about players. Forget ‘2 Jet Flanker Drive.’ Think about Derek Carr. Think about his best throws there.”
The Raiders did. Their best chance for the playoffs with that brutal schedule down the stretch? Let Carr drive the team.
Football in America: Episode 5—Arizona
We started a series (in partnership with State Farm) examining all levels of football—youth, high school, college and pro—in various cities across the country. In the latest episode, Ben Baskin, Kalyn Kahler and videographers Ryan Mitchell and Alex Nolan take us to Arizona and its growing football culture. Really growing. As Baskin writes:
“Sun Devil Stadium is currently being renovated to the tune of $307 million. That includes a 120,000-square-foot player facility, replete with a 9,813-square-foot weight room sitting above a 1,924-square-foot deck for cardio training, a 5,347-square-foot training table area with seating for 160, a plunge pool with a waterfall, a players lounge, a barber shop, a nutrition bar and a 5,387-square-foot sports medicine area.”
A barber shop?
Next week: Chicagoland.