ALAMEDA, Calif. — Derek Carr went to the Pro Bowl.
He represented the Oakland Raiders well by not only winning the QB precision challenge but also leading the AFC to a game-winning drive in the NFL’s all-star game. It all made for a nice bow on an uplifting season for Carr, no?
“[Carr] took a little, obviously, step backwards,” incoming Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said upon his return to Oakland.
“Three broken bones in your back,” offered returning coach Jon Gruden. “I think that is a reasonable reason why you might not have the same season you had a year ago.”
Although Carr’s heroics at the Pro Bowl make for a nice springboard going forward under a new staff, it is just as important to realize that he regressed last season — because those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
Or some such.
Sure, Carr put up stats in 2017 — 3,496 yards passing, 22 touchdowns — but his Total QBR dipped from 62.1 to 47.2. For the second year in a row, he missed a game due to injury.
In 2016, it was a broken right fibula suffered in Week 16 that ended the Raiders’ thoughts of a playoff run. Last year, as Gruden referenced, it was the back injury in Week 4 that cost him a game and was an obvious detriment the rest of the season.
“I think there is a huge ceiling in Derek Carr,” Gruden said. “I think he has proven that. Up to us as a coaching staff to improve around him, get more consistent and come up with an offense that really allows him to soar into another level. It is exciting, and I think if I was a Raiders fan, I would come every week very excited to see No. 4 under center.”
But what about Carr’s backup?
Not that Gruden & Co. should be worrying all that much about a guy who, if all goes well and according to plan, should never see the field. But broken pinkie fingers, snapped fibulas and three transverse process fractures happen.
EJ Manuel, who had a $775,000 base salary last season, will be a free agent and did little to capture the imagination of the Raiders in his lone start with Carr sidelined by the back injury.
Granted, Manuel was trailing 14-0 before he took his fourth snap of the game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5. And he had the Raiders 36 yards and a PAT away from beating the Denver Broncos a week earlier in relief of the injured Carr.
But few expect Manuel, a former first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills who completed 24 of 43 passes for 265 yards, a touchdown and an interception in two games, to re-sign with Oakland.
Then there is Connor Cook, a fourth-round pick of the Raiders in 2016 who, despite starting Oakland’s playoff game at the Houston Texans as a rookie and having a year’s head start in the system, could not beat Manuel last season.
Cook was active for just one game this past season — against Baltimore — so why might he have a future under Gruden?
For one thing, Gruden loved how “aggressive” Cook was in college at Michigan State. Then again, whom didn’t Gruden fall in love with on his QB Camp show?
“You’re a gunslinger, aren’t ya?” Gruden asked a nodding Cook, who took it as a compliment, especially from Gruden. “It’s unbelievable the capabilities you have throwing the ball.”
Yes, Carr is also known as a gunslinger.
Know who else is seen as such? A guy with the handle of Johnny Football.
Gruden also loved Johnny Manziel out of Texas A&M in 2014 and reportedly urged the Raiders, who had the No. 4 overall pick that year, to draft him. Instead, Oakland went with Khalil Mack in the first round, Manziel went to the Cleveland Browns at No. 22 overall, and the Raiders took Carr with the fourth pick of the second round. Manziel washed out after two seasons.
But now Manziel, who last played in the NFL in 2015, wants back in.
Gruden wouldn’t dare, would he? Should he?
That would make for three of Gruden’s all-time favorite QB Camp alumni — in Carr, Cook and Manziel — under one roof, with Cook and Manziel, obviously, competing for the backup gig.
While we’re mulling fascinating QB rooms, why not break the internet entirely and have Oakland bring in Colin Kaepernick, who might be in better shape than any of the three aforementioned quarterbacks? What’s more, the Raiders have probably the lone owner in the NFL who not only would not have a problem with Kaepernick’s activist role but also would actually celebrate it in Mark Davis.
Then there’s this: Kaepernick, who filed a grievance against the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the game last season, played in the NFL more recently than Manziel. When Kaepernick last suited up, in 2016, his 96.2 passer rating in his last six games was the same as last year’s Niners wunderkind posted in his six games of the 2017 season, and Jimmy Garappolo was just rewarded with a record five-year, $137.5 million contract — after seven career starts, five in Santa Clara.
That all makes Carr’s then-record five-year, $125 million deal signed last summer seem like a relative bargain. And why wouldn’t Gruden want to push him by surrounding him with an eclectic mix of talent at the position?
After all, if Gruden is the QB Whisperer he is advertised to be, even 10 years after coaching his last game in the NFL, imagine the molding he would be able to do with that foursome.
Of course, the focus is on Carr, who has $125 million reasons to be the face of the franchise and would have to welcome the challenge of being in such a QB room, rather than shrinking from it.
“Everything we do in this building is going to be about the development of Derek Carr,” Olson said. “The way we script practices, the way we are doing drills, everything that we do is all about the development of the quarterback.”