David Becker/Associated Press
The Las Vegas Raiders are Derek Carr’s team. Let no more be said about his status as the organization’s franchise quarterback after Monday’s 34-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints (1-1) in the debut of NFL football in Sin City and the grand opening of Allegiant Stadium because the performance serves a defining movement for both the quarterback and his head coach, Jon Gruden.
For years, doubts lingered as the Raiders (2-0) flirted with other potential options. Many wondered if the organization positioned itself to move on from the 2014 second-round draft pick as its starter. Why wouldn’t they? The team hosted Kyler Murray on a predraft visit last year. The front office contemplated making a run Tom Brady in free agency this offseason. Then, Marcus Mariota signed the league’s most lucrative backup deal.
“My understanding in that building is Jon Gruden is more staunch on Derek Carr than the people in the owner’s box,” NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported in August (h/t Rotoworld’s Evan Silva).
Some will say the previous dalliances were nothing but due diligence ensuring the quarterback position remains a strength. But it became very clear that these types of moves had an effect on Carr and how he viewed his status with the franchise.
“I have a lot to prove to myself. I have a lot to prove to my organization,” Carr told reporters at the start of training camp. “I am going to be completely honest with you, Im tired of being disrespected.”
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press
Up until last week, Gruden still felt the need to make an unprompted statement about his quarterback’s status even after a 34-30 victory over the Carolina Panthers where Carr completed 73.3 percent of his passes and played mistake-free football.
“You gotta changes your snap count, you gotta change your audibles, you gotta change your hand signals but we’re not changing quarterbacks,” Gruden told reporters. “Derek played great. Derek Carr played a super game [Sunday]. No sacks, no interceptions, 34 points did a great job throwing the ball accurately made some great plays for us.”
Well, OK then.
To be fair, the Panthers aren’t the Saints. Carolina is considered one of the favorites for this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick because they’re caught in a transitory phase under new leadership. Whereas, the Saints entered the season as one of the NFC favorites to appear in Super Bowl LV. A decisive victory over the reigning NFC South champions is far more impressive and shows growth for both Carr and his coach.
Neither has been all that successful, especially against winning programs. The Raiders were 11-21 during their first two seasons with Gruden back at the helm. Carr, meanwhile, struggled against playoff-caliber opponents throughout his career prior to Monday’s contest, as Scott Kacsmar noted:
Scott Kacsmar@ScottKacsmarWorst record as starter vs. playoff teams since 2001
1. David Carr 3-33 (.083)
2. Derek Carr 4-33 (.108)
3. Matthew Stafford 8-55 (.127)
4. Blake Bortles 4-25 (.138)
5. Jameis Winston 4-23 (.148)
Carr established a reputation as a dink-and-dunker who isn’t willing to uncork attempts at big plays even if they’re seemingly available. To a degree, that’s fair. Although, the argument doesn’t take into account how his yards per attempt average increased in each of the last two seasons.
The juxtaposition of Carr’s play compared to Drew Brees’ slow demise showed where each quarterback currently stands in their respective careers.
No one can take anything away from Brees’ accomplishments through his 20 seasons. He’s the most prolific passer in NFL history. But his uncanny accuracy, overall decision-making and inability to drive the football aren’t what they once were.
Conversely, Carr completed 73.7 percent of his passes, excelled against pressure and feasted on out-breaking patterns, per NFL Next Gen Stats:
Next Gen Stats@NextGenStatsWhere Derek Carr excelled in the #Raiders Week 2 win:
Passing vs Blitz
13/17, 114 yards, 2 TD
15/18, 105 yards, 3 TD
#NOvsLV | #RaiderNation https://t.co/PGN7Mp7Jsr
“Outside of the stat sheet, Derek Carr was awesome tonight,” Gruden told reporters after the game.
Everyone is seeing the continued maturation of a veteran quarterback, who is only 29 years old. He’s now been in the same system for three years, and the Raiders have legitimate play-makers around him. As good as Amari Cooper is now and was for a time early in his career, his inconsistency and unhappiness in Oakland caused a failed relationship between the wide receiver and the organization.
At this very moment, the Raiders have arguably the very best tight end in the game thanks to George Kittle’s injury and Zach Ertz’s blasé start to the season. Darren Waller is nearly impossible to cover due to his speed and versatility. The tight end lines up on the wing, in the slot, out wide and even in the backfield at times. He torched the Saints for 12 receptions, 103 yards and a touchdown. Waller continues to build on last year’s breakthrough performance as the focal point of the Raiders passing attack.
Waller was fantastic. Even so, 11 different receivers caught a pass from Carr in the impressive victory.
The Raiders have two exciting rookies at wide receiver in Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs III, who is currently playing through a knee injury, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Las Vegas can go tight end-heavy by using 12 and 13 personnel sets with Foster Moreau and long-time veteran Jason Witten on the roster as well.
Josh Jacobs, meanwhile, is the best running back Carr has had alongside him in the backfield. Sure, Marshawn Lynch donned the silver and black, but that experience happened during the tail end of the workhorse’s long and storied career. Jacob is young, fresh and provides a physical dynamic to the Raiders offense based on how he finishes runs. Through two games, the second-year back has 59 touches for 244 total yards and three scores.
David Becker/Associated Press
The defense is a work in progress. Las Vegas provides little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is hurt. The secondary needs to be more consistent, too. Even so, the group contained the Saints about as well as anyone should expect. Brees might not be slinging it right now, but New Orleans still features running back Alvin Kamara, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook.
Now, Gruden’s squad is one of six AFC teams with a 2-0 record. Granted, the rival Kansas City Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champs and a major roadblock in the AFC West. Even so, Las Vegas has a premium opportunity to prove itself before the Week 6 bye with upcoming contests against the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Chiefs. Adversity shows a team’s true colors, and the Raiders are capable of competing with all those squads.
The confidence built during the Allegiant Stadium’s christening should elevate the Raiders entire roster and coaching staff. The new digs may be dubbed the “Death Star” but a rebellion is rising in the desert with Carr and Gruden leading the way.
“I love being a Raider. I’m never going to play anyplace else,” Carr told reporters.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.
David Becker/Associated Press