Since the glory days of Rich Gannon, the quarterback position in Oakland has been a virtual wasteland.
Since the start of the 2003 season — one year after the Raiders reached the Super Bowl — 18 different quarterbacks have started games in Oakland. During that span, the Raiders have gone 61-142 — easily one of the worst marks in the NFL.
But finally, after 13 years of misery, the 5-6 Raiders — who will host the Chiefs, 6-5, on Sunday at the O.co Coliseum — might have found something with quarterback No. 18, as Derek Carr, the Raiders’ second-round draft pick in 2014, is finally giving Oakland fans reason to hope.
“He was poised last year for a rookie, and he’s even more poised now,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He gets the ball out fast. I think the Raiders are very fortunate to have him. He’s a good football player. (General manager) Reggie (McKenzie) did a good job there.”
Through 11 games, the Raiders are right in the playoff hunt, along with the Chiefs, and Carr’s play has something to do with that, as he’s completed 240 of 378 passes (63.5 percent) for 2,895 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions.
What’s more, his passer rating of 101.5 ranks sixth in the league, directly ahead of established stars like Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees — who rank seventh, eighth and ninth — while the Chiefs’ Alex Smith checks in at No. 10.
“Derek has done a great job really growing in our system,” Oakland coach Jack Del Rio said. “He really attacked it in the offseason from day one, just really couldn’t wait to get started. He’s got a real good delivery, a real sharp delivery. He’s accurate. He’s everything you want in a young player that is working hard every day at his craft.”
Del Rio wasn’t kidding. When Carr wrote down his goals for 2015 last offseason, one of them was quite lofty.
“I didn’t want to throw any” interceptions, Carr said. “When I wrote that down and people saw it, they kind of laughed.”
But Carr’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is still among the best in the league — his interception percentage of 1.6 is the fifth-lowest among starting quarterbacks — and his ability to get the ball out swiftly has been a benefit to the Raiders’ offensive line, which has surrendered the fewest sacks in the league (14) and the third-fewest quarterback hits (38).
“He does have a short, quick release, so once he’s made up his mind, he can get the ball out quickly,” Del Rio said. “I think really, the preparation is what I’m most proud of, the way he attacks it each week. He understands each opponent brings its own set of challenges, and certainly we’ve got a lot of challenges this week with the front we’re going against.”
Carr knows the Chiefs — who rank fifth in the league with 30 sacks — will be coming after him Sunday, even if they might be without outside linebacker Justin Houston, who is dealing with a knee sprain.
“You know, whether we’re throwing it deep down the field or throwing it short, you always want to get the ball out quick because in this league, there’s such good premier rushers,” Carr said.
Carr, obviously, still has plenty of areas where he needs to improve. While he hasn’t been hit much, he’s still fumbled six times this season, tied for the sixth-most among quarterbacks. Also, his accuracy can wane under pressure, a trait that often separates the best NFL quarterbacks from the rest.
Carr’s need to improve in this area was especially evident last year, when teams were particularly eager to fluster the rookie.
“I think I was one of the highest-blitzed quarterbacks, and — if you check the stats — that’s usually how every young quarterback is,” Carr said. “They’re usually high on that list. They still blitz, obviously, this year.
“Teams are going to do what they do, but it’s not going to be overblown once they see that the guys can handle it and stuff like that. … Obviously, there was a lot more last year.”
But Carr has some legitimate weapons to throw to this year, too. Rookie Amari Cooper, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, has blossomed into a bona fide threat and is on pace to finish the year with 84 catches for 1,238 yards and six touchdowns, while veteran free-agent signee Michael Crabtree is on pace to catch 89 passes for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They’re like big brothers,” Carr said. “They both root for each other, they’re both each other’s biggest fan, and I think that those two are like the perfect blend to be together, especially with their personalities. They’re two guys that get along well. They compete at everything that they do, and it’s fun to watch them. It’s fun to throw to those guys because they make me look a lot better than I am.”
And against the Titans on Sunday, third receiver Seth Roberts caught six passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns, potentially giving Carr yet another intriguing option going forward.
But first, this weekend he’ll be looking to repeat his home performance against the Chiefs from last year, when he guided the Raiders — who were 0-10 at the time — to a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter, something he also did Sunday in a 24-21 win over Tennessee.
Repeating that task will not be easy; Carr knows the Chiefs’ defense has blossomed into one of the league’s better units during their recent five-game winning streak. But that win last November, his first as a pro, has served as a springboard, of sorts, for his career.
“I always had confidence in myself, I was just waiting for the wins to happen,” Carr said of the 24-20 victory, which was on Thursday Night Football. “We were blessed enough to finally get one, and it happened to be on a touchdown pass. But without James (Jones) running a perfect route, those things don’t happen. I’m always confident, but it obviously has helped.”