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Raiders’ 2016 transformation gives Carr unique edge in MVP race

TAMPA FL, - OCTOBER 30: Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) delivers a pass during the NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 30, 2016 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Although obviously not playing quarterback as well as Tom Brady or separating himself in the Offensive Player of the Year race like Ezekiel Elliott, Derek Carr has crafted a legitimate MVP case.

The Raiders are tied for the best record in the AFC, which is a step shy of inserting the Browns into that sentence.

Oakland Coliseum is a relevant environment again. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were actually summoned here last weekend after more than a decade of CBS sending its fifth- and sixth-string crews — or anyone the network was generally upset with — to call these games. And the Raiders are 9-2 despite off-the-field chaos regarding their future.

This would make Carr a frontrunner even if he was asked to shoulder Dak Prescott-esque workloads, but he’s the Raiders’ offensive centerpiece. And he has not enjoyed the luxury of a defense aiding in much these nine wins.

Oakland skipped a step in its rebuild, vaulting from a below-average team to a legitimate threat for home-field advantage in the AFC bracket. Based on what Carr is asked to do, he belongs in the thick of the MVP race.

However, the toughest part of the Raiders’ schedule is coming. Elliott and Brady are a better bet for consistency down the stretch based on circumstances and history, so being a slight favorite now doesn’t mean as much when Carr’s candidacy is tied to the success of a team so unaccustomed to it.

The Raiders still have road dates against each of their AFC West brethren and a Bills home tilt; Oakland failing to win the AFC West probably disqualifies Carr, whose numbers lag behind Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, or Brady (on a per-game basis).

Dallas is almost certainly going to win the NFC East and secure home-field advantage, and Elliott has helped transform an offense in a way few running backs can in this era. But none of Carr’s competition here has been responsible for the kind of unique season the third-year quarterback’s enjoyed.

It’s hard to overstate the kind of leap Carr’s helped orchestrate in Oakland, a comically inept franchise for most of this century and one that began a season 0-10 as recently as two years ago.

In between Rich Gannon winning the 2002 MVP — a season that seems closer to 40 years ago than 14 — the Raiders failed to win nine games in any season, coaxed career-worst play from Randy Moss and Carson Palmer before seeing them ignite elsewhere after pennies-on-the-dollar trades, rehired Art Shell (whose offensive coordinator that year was previously running a bed and breakfast) before going 2-14 in ’06, and cycled through nine more head coaches in the past 13 years.

Carr himself has made remarkable transformations, moving on after a horrendous rookie season — one which scant talent supplemented him offensively — to throw 32 touchdown passes in 2015. He’s at 22 now, with five interceptions and a 66 percent completion figure, for a Raiders team that ranks 29th defensively.

The team has elevated its talent, for sure, bringing in Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and making several smart offensive line buys. But the Raiders do not have the skill-position depth of the Patriots or Falcons, and don’t have an offensive line quite on the Cowboys’ tier.

Jack Del Rio and Bill Musgrave are also not on Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ level. Since among quarterbacks it’s probably going to come down to Carr and Brady, the former’s degree of difficulty is higher than the New England legend’s. The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady, and although they’re obviously much better with him, the Belichick advantage is also difficult to overstate.

For Brady to win this, Elliott and Carr need to veer somewhat off course since he did miss four games because of his own doing. Whether you believe Deflategate happened or not, Brady still pushed this to the point he was suspended this season and not last, and this circumstance is different from a player being lost to injury for four games.

The Raiders have needed Carr to be great often since their defensive spending has not translated into an improved unit. He’s delivered, throwing 12 touchdown passes and no picks when the Raiders have trailed this season. He’s made an attack that has Seth Roberts and Clive Walford as its Nos. 3-4 options lethal. Carr doesn’t have an 18/1 TD-to-INT ratio like Brady or a 71.5 percent completion rate like Brees, but a previously dreadful franchise has needed him to reel off repeat comeback victories — and their soon-to-be wealthy conductor has gotten it done.

The latest provided the cornerstone moment for the former second-round pick’s career thus far.

Re-emerging with a right-handed glove after the dislocated-finger incident threatened to sink another Raiders shootout, Carr led game-tying and game-winning drives — making pinpoint throws to Walford and Roberts on the touchdown/two-point conversion sequence — to vex the Panthers in a 315-yard performance.

Again, this won’t be enough if the Raiders finish 11-5 and miss out on a home January date.

Elliott (1,502 yards from scrimmage, 12 TDs) is on pace to out-do DeMarco Murray’s dominant 2014 season (2,261, 13) for a team whose floor looks like three losses, and Ryan stands to be a stealth candidate if the Falcons can secure an NFC bye. Russell Wilson remains in the mix, too, if the Seahawks can do the same. Assuming Rob Gronkowski can stay reasonably healthy — an underrated component of Brady’s mid-2010s renaissance — Brady will play well enough to force the voters to decide whether his suspension was enough to dock him points against players who have been valuable all season long.

However, Carr has helped probably the league’s second-worst franchise over the previous 13 years rise to an unthinkable position. That should count the same way the Patriots’ sustained success does for Brady.

If the 25-year-old passer can finish this Raiders effort off — because unlike the previous AFC West champion, this team will need its quarterback to be consistently great for this to happen — Carr deserves the MVP.

His win would mark the most random recipient since Kurt Warner in 1999, but if the Raiders are wearing black in January, something incredible occurred this season. And that shouldn’t go without acknowledgement.

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