The Oakland Raiders have been one of the least successful franchises in the NFL since their Super Bowl appearance in 2002.They have not finished above .500 since that season, and have gone through nine head coaches.
Fresno State product Derek Carr is out to change that.
Carr’s Raiders are just 4-4, but he has them in the playoff discussion at the midway point of the season for the first time in over a decade. Consider this: Carr is just one of four quarterbacks in the NFL with at least 2,000 passing yards, more than 15 touchdowns passes and fewer than five interceptions. The other three are Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton.
Carr, who is Pro Football Focus’s fourth highest-rated quarterback, is also on pace to shatter his rookie totals from last season. The sophomore threw for just 21 touchdowns last season to go with 12 interceptions, 3,270 yards, a 58.1 percent completion rate and a 76.6 passer rating.
This year, he is completing his passes at a 63.7 percent clip, with 2,094 yards, 19 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 104.3, good for sixth in the league. With half the season left to play, some Raiders franchise records are within reach for Carr. Daryle Lamonica’s single-season franchise record of 34 touchdowns passes in 1969 and Rich Gannon’s 67.6 percent completion rate in 2002 can be broken. Carr also has a high likelihood to become just the third quarterback in Raiders history to have a 4,000-yard season (Gannon, Carson Palmer – 2012).
There are a few contributing factors to his improvement. Rodney Hudson has evolved into one of the best centers in the game, while Gabe Jackson is strong at guard, and Donald Penn has been protecting his blind side effectively. Protection has been better than last season, when Carr was the victim of 24 sacks. This year he has been taken down just eight times. Carr looks more poised and confident in the pocket than in his rookie season.
This improved line play has allowed Carr more time to throw to his top weapons, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is the 11th highest-rated wide receiver at PFF. He has been an effective run blocker in addition to catching 47 passes for 591 yards and five touchdowns. Cooper has lived up to his draft hype, too. He has 45 receptions and 653 receiving yards to go with four touchdowns. Both have combined to be reliable weapons for Carr, where they have just one fumble between the two of them this year.
You can’t forget the AFC’s leading rusher, either. Latavius Murray has racked up 630 yards on 4.8 yards per carry and three touchdowns for Oakland, losing just one fumble. He has been knocked around a bit this season, but Oakland hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2010, when Darren McFadden had 1,157. Contributions from the ground game enable the Raiders to run a more balanced attack; a luxury they haven’t enjoyed in quite some time. Murray has also chipped in to the passing game with 21 catches for 104 yards.
The defense leaves a lot to be desired, though. Despite having the league interception leader in Charles Woodson, the Raiders have the worst pass defense in the league, allowing 314.6 yards through the air per game. The rush defense is much better, top-8 in the NFL in fact, with young buck Khalil Mack, PFF’s second highest-rated edge defender, leading that charge.
Though the secondary has tons of issues to work out, Jack del Rio has the Raiders on the right track.
On offense, a young, steadily improving quarterback has reduced the backbreaking mistakes (unlike fellow sophomore Blake Bortles) and has stepped into the role of leader. Murray anchors the rushing attack effectively, with Marcel Reece there to buttress him as well. Crabtree and Cooper are a dynamic one-two punch at wide receiver, and Clive Walford has potential at tight end.
On the other side, Mack is one of the best defensive players in the game already, and Malcolm Smith has been a nice surprise. Hopefully Woodson can imbue some of his veteran knowledge on the otherwise-youthful Raiders’ secondary, as that’s Oakland’s biggest issue right now.
Five of the Raiders’ final eight games come against teams that are under .500. Big tests loom in the form of hosting the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers in Oakland, and going on the road to play the Denver Broncos. Even if the postseason eludes Oakland yet again this season, the Raiders, for the first time in a while, are set up for sustained success if the player development keeps trending upwards.