The 2016 Oakland Raiders season didn’t officially end when a Trent Cole tackle left Derek Carr writhing in pain with a broken right fibula, but the writing was on the wall of the Black Hole.
At 12-3, the Raiders technically still had a chance to secure a first-round bye if they beat the Denver Broncos in Week 17, but any thought of contending with Matt McGloin or Connor Cook at quarterback was a pipe dream.
Oakland’s 2016 story ended predictably with a blowout loss in Denver followed by a deflating loss in Houston in the playoffs.
At one point in the game against the Texans, Khalil Mack and Cook crossed paths on the way to and from the sideline.
Mack gave Cook a look that suggested, “Man, we have no shot to win with this guy.”
He was right.
Carr underwent surgery, and barring unexpected setbacks will be under center on opening day for the Raiders.
After a 12-4 season, the Raiders will be billed as contenders in 2017, thanks to coaxing Marshawn Lynch out of retirement and signing tight end Jared Cook, who showed flashes of brilliance in Green Bay.
Oakland took an enormous risk by selecting cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round despite rape allegations in the week leading up to the draft. His talent was apparently too much to overlook.
The moral issues contained therein aren’t part of this particular discussion. It’s meant to illustrate a simple point: the Raiders are all in this season.
Some heroic late-game moments catapulted Carr into the MVP discussion last year. If the Raiders are truly going to compete for a title this season, Carr has to step into the upper-echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL.
The hardest move in sports for an athlete is to go from being a star to a superstar. There’s no bright line, but we know superstars when we see them.
Carr isn’t there yet, but he can be. The Raiders need him to be.
And despite putting up impressive overall numbers in 2016 — 3,937 yards on 64% of passes completed, with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions, Carr has plenty of room for growth.
For starters, he has to create more big plays and push the ball down the field. Especially with the dynamic weapons at his disposal and the most effective pass-blocking unit in football last season.
In fact, Carr felt the most infrequent pressure in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The average NFL quarterback felt pressure on a little over one out of every three drop backs. For Carr, it was just one out of every four-plus.
But despite having tremendous protection, Carr finished just 23rd in yards per attempt among regular starters, which means the distance downfield his average pass traveled was among the lowest in football. Part of that is play design; the Raiders love to get the ball out quick to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Offensive coordinator Todd Downing has to acculturate Jack Del Rio’s aggressive head coaching style to this offense. It’s time to take the training wheels off Carr and let him do what he did best at Fresno State: sling it down the field.
Few quarterbacks in football have the pure arm strength and talent Carr possesses. Lynch, assuming he’s healthy and in football shape, has a chance to eat up defenses behind this Raiders offensive line. The short passing game no longer has to be a substitute for the run game.
Let Lynch go Beast Mode and force defenses to scramble off play action, pushing the ball down the field.
Oakland can’t simply rely on its receivers to make plays after the catch. Carr had the 12th-most yards after catch per attempts last year, which means he got a fair amount of help from his receivers.
Carr has to find ways to make more plays, instead of relying on his receivers to do the work.
He also simply has to produce more because the team needs it.
Nine of the Raiders’ 16 games last season were decided by a touchdown or less, and another two were decided by eight — essentially one score. Oakland was 8-1 in those nine games and 9-2 in one-score games, an entirely unsustainable model moving forward.
Carr proved he could win close games, a skill that will serve him well in the playoffs when the Raiders face better competition, and games consistently tighten up. Taking a step forward means showing you can beat teams handily. Oakland’s defense has to take some of the burden on when it comes to winning games convincingly, but the best quarterbacks in the game win without elite defenses.
To that point, the Raiders’ weighted defensive efficiency (that means accounting for their opponents), was 21st in the league. That puts them directly in front of the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.
I assume you’ve heard of their quarterbacks.
For the Raiders to truly be a part of the title conversation, Carr must enter that group; the quarterbacks whispered about in hushed tones, the ones who keep defensive coordinators up at night because they can win a game seemingly on sheer force of will.
The Raiders got every break and every bounce in 2016, right up until the one break that sunk their season: in the leg of their quarterback in the midst of a breakout season.
It’s time for Carr to put the break and his breakout behind him. This is now the baseline, and he has to exceed it.
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