The difficulty in evaluating Derek Carr’s season with the Raiders

Tyrell Williams, Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tyrell Williams, Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Given the circumstances surrounding the Oakland Raiders offense this season, a fair evaluation of Derek Carr might be hard for Jon Gruden.

In the coming weeks and months, plenty of ink will be spilled about Derek Carr’s future.

Given the Oakland Raiders recent turn back toward “pitiful franchise,” the conjecture is unlikely to be positive. But before easy stones are cast at the Raiders longtime starting quarterback, it deserves to be said that any evaluation of Carr this year is not a straightforward exercise.

For some fans and analysts, they’ve likely seen enough of Carr at the helm. It makes sense given that the Raiders have averaged just over six wins per season in the last six years—the length of his tenure with the team. If not for a 12-win season back in ’15 that now resembles a fluke, the plug would have been pulled a long time ago.

But Carr in 2019 has looked the part, or at least better than what some teams enjoy at the quarterback position these days. He’s completing a career-high 70 percent of his passes this year with a career best passer rating (thus far) with 98.6. His 16 touchdowns against eight interceptions isn’t much to write home about, but he’s also averaging 7.7 yards per pass attempt, his highest ever, and Gruden seems to know how to coax the best out of Carr. For a three-time Pro Bowler, that’s not a bad deal.

Even more, Carr has been working with the most anemic set of wide receivers in the entire NFL. Antonio Brown was supposed to be a part of the offensive solution, but that turned into a laughable sideshow. J.J. Nelson went from a nice offseason addition to released in October. Ryan Grant also signed alongside Nelson, but was let go even earlier in the year. Dwayne Harris was lost for the season in November, and Hunter Renfrow recently punctured a lung with a broken rib.

Basically, Tyrell Williams is the only player remaining from the projected top four still in play—not exactly a top-shelf stable of talent for Carr to throw to. The Raiders have thrown pasta at the receivers wall all season to see what sticks, including a trade to Buffalo for Zay Jones, an odd back and forth with the Jags to secure Keelan Doss, and a swap with Green Bay for Trevor Davis.

In short, the Raiders have completely remade their wide receiving corps on the fly all season long, and they’ve never once had anything resembling a top-tier talent play a single snap. Darren Waller, a breakout at tight end, has been the team’s most reliable pass catcher, and it’s certainly helped to have a beast like Josh Jacobs as a rookie running back to serve as the bell cow. Outside of those two, the Raiders have face a dearth of talent among the skill positions.

On the surface, it seems as if Carr deserves the benefit of the doubt. He’s led the Raiders to 12 victories in a season past. He’s set career marks in key categories while working with the worst receiving corps in football. What more is a quarterback to do, right?

In addition, the Raiders have already cast their lot. After signing Carr to an extension that keeps him from hitting unrestricted free agency until 2023, the Raiders would face over $27 million in dead cap space if they wanted out this offseason. And the Raiders used up their bevy of draft picks if they were keen on drafting a different face of the franchise. They had three first-round picks just last year and used them to secure talent at less important positions. The lack of a QB in the team’s extensive draft class was a vote of confidence for Carr.

Place it all together and Carr looks like a safe bet to be the Oakland Raiders starting quarterback through at least another full season.

Or is he?

Carr has put together some nice numbers and the Raiders have overcome preseason expectations to actually be a contender for a playoff spot heading into the month of December. But Carr has failed to turn the corner as a dependable team leader who can hoist this team on his shoulders and win games.

This past Sunday, Carr came into Arrowhead Stadium with an 0-5 mark in his career and withered, once again, in front of the Kansas City faithful. Against the Chiefs, with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Carr had completed only 12 of 21 pass attempts for 150 yard and two interceptions. If not for an impressive final drive in garbage time with the game already 30 points out of reach, Carr would be feeling a bit more of the blame on Monday morning.

Therein lies the story with Carr in general. For a player with six years of experience at the helm in Oakland, Carr looks like he has a clear ceiling—at least as long as Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are in the AFC West. The Denver Broncos have to be excited by the early displays of Drew Lock. The Chiefs are obviously set. The Chargers look ready to turn the page themselves from Philip Rivers, who is even now at 38, much more impressive than Carr as a starting option.

Is Carr the piece that keeps this team from making the leap to the next level? Is he simply doing the best he can with a limited set of weapons? Evaluation isn’t as easy as the Raiders would like it to be, but they can ill afford to get this one wrong. The Raiders have already set some nice young pieces in place, but if they surround the wrong quarterback, it could mean lots of seasons wasted.