OAKLAND — Derek Carr understood the magnitude of the moment, and he knew exactly what he wanted. Still emotionally exhausted from the longest spring and summer of his life, fresh off a surreal week that brought a merciful end to the Antonio Brown Silver and Black Saga, the Oakland Raiders’ sixth-year quarterback was on the verge of closing out a very important victory, and he had zero desire to play it safe.
As Carr stood on the Raiders’ sideline with two minutes remaining in Monday night’s season opener against the Denver Broncos, with Oakland facing a third-and-8 from its own 27, he received the call from coach Jon Gruden: A running play that would force the Broncos, who trailed by eight points, to burn their final timeout.
Carr looked at Gruden, steeled his gaze and shook his head no.
"Let me throw the screen," he implored the veteran coach. "If it’s not there I’ll call a timeout, and we’ll reassess."
Gruden thought about it for a couple of seconds. He sized up his quarterback’s demeanor, and decided he loved everything about it. "OK," Gruden said. "Let’s do it. Let’s end it."
And then Carr jogged back onto the field with a bounce in his step and closed out a 24-16 victory in front of 52,359 fans at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, flicking a perfect pass to his left, where wide receiver Tyrell Williams was waiting behind a wall of blockers. Ten yards later, the Raiders had a first down — and Carr had the enduring admiration of Raider Nation’s most potent powerbroker.
"I like that he did that," Gruden said afterward as he walked to his car outside the north end of the Coliseum. "(It was), ‘Put the game in my hands.’ And you listen to a good quarterback."
Carr was a very good quarterback on Monday, completing 22 of 26 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, without being intercepted or sacked. His throws were crisp and accurate, and he was a commanding presence in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
Going up against one of the NFL’s most feared defensive strategists, first-year Broncos coach Vic Fangio, Carr unflinchingly took over the game from the outset. He completed his first eight passes, five of them on an opening drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Williams. In the second quarter he engineered a 95-yard scoring drive — 98, if you count the two false start penalties that pinned the Raiders at their 2 before the first official snap — with rookie running back Josh Jacobs (23 carries, 85 yards, two TDs) ultimately blasting in from two yards out to give Oakland a 14-0 lead.
If it felt like Carr was a little more juiced up than usual — well, that wasn’t merely being imagined.
"I was a man on a mission," Carr said afterward as he stood at his locker. "And that had nothing to do with what went down this past week. That was pent up from last season. I have been ready to go for awhile, and I know we have a really good team this year, and I couldn’t wait to get out there. So, not angry, just ready and really focused.
"I’m on a mission. The job is not done."
Carr might not have been angry, but when the Raiders finally released Brown on Saturday morning, it was as though a massive load of quicksand had been removed from his body. After Oakland made the trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers last March to acquire the perennial All-Pro receiver, Carr went out of his way to embrace his new teammate, throwing with him over the offseason and attempting to forge a connection.
That, beginning in OTAs, proved to be a challenging endeavor. Between the helmet freakouts and the frostbitten feet and the unexcused training camp absences and the confrontations with the general manager (complete with alleged racial slurs) and the social-media postings of a fine letter and a phone-call with Gruden… well, it was a lot.
When Brown finally asked for (via Instagram) and received his freedom on Saturday, Carr exhaled deeply.
"I’m just glad it’s over," he told me shortly after entering the locker room Monday night. "I just wanted it to be over. Nothing against ‘AB,’ but it’s been hard. I wanted to move on. I wanted it to be about us."
Give the Raiders credit — they responded to Brown’s departure like a team, and they played perhaps their best game of the second Gruden era, which began when owner Mark Davis brought him out of the broadcast booth following the 2017 season. That had been a downer of a year for Carr, who in 2016 had appeared to be an emerging superstar who was already one of the NFL’s best players.
On Monday night, it looked a whole lot like 2016 again. And beginning midway through the first quarter, and continuing throughout the night, Coliseum fans — undoubtedly nauseated by Brown’s subsequent signing with the New England Patriots, and the receiver’s joyful social-media post to commemorate it — let it all out, chanting, "F— AB!"
Carr wouldn’t go there, making a point in his postgame press conference of expressing his personal regard for his ex-teammate.
"I love Antonio," Carr said. "He knows that. He’s not here, and I wish him the best. I hope he goes off and finds everything he wants. Sent him a text — it says, ‘Hey, I wish you the best. I hope you get what you want.’ There’s no hurt feelings. There’s no anger in me… But we’re moving on and we have a good football team, and I’m really happy to be a part of this team. We’re really, really close, and it’s like a family."
Suffice it to say that others in the family fed off Carr’s intensity.
"He was locked in," veteran center Rodney Hudson said of Carr. "He was locked in for this whole week. When he plays well, we kind of just fuel off of it. He started hot and we tried our best to keep him upright."
And in the end, when the Raiders had a chance to KO the Broncos, Carr didn’t want to mess around. At the two-minute warning, when he successfully lobbied his headstrong head coach to switch from run to pass, Carr was resolutely a different quarterback than he’d been a year ago, his first under Gruden.
"Year 2, man," Carr said. "That’s a conversation that doesn’t happen last year. Last year, I would go over and ask him what he wants to do: ‘What’s the call?’ But we’re on the same page now."
It was the right page: Not only did Williams, the team’s other offseason acquisition to shore up the wideout position, get the first down, but for a second it looked like he might get much, much more.
"That could have almost been a home run," Carr said. "That would have been hilarious."
As Carr left the field following a postgame interview on ESPN, he was still jacked up, pausing at home plate of the stadium the Raiders share with the Oakland A’s — for one more season, at least — winding up to throw the football he held in his right hand. Alas, the remaining fans in Section 115 weren’t up to the task, and the ball landed with a thud in front of an occupied row of seats.
It was one of the few balls Carr didn’t complete on a night that, perhaps, will go down as a turning point in his very scrutinized career.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter at @MikeSilver
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