Derek Carr is so safe, he's dangerous

ByMina Kimes ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's December 12 issue. Subscribe today!

Go back to Week 1. Raiders vs. Saints. It's the beginning of the fourth quarter, and Oakland is losing 24-13. Third-year quarterback Derek Carr takes a snap, drops back a few steps and then surveys the field--calmly, like a father waiting for his children to appear on the steps of their school. After a moment passes, he slings a beautifully arched pass to wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has somehow crept behind the Saints' secondary. It's a 43-yard gain and another highlight-reel throw for Carr.

Now go back and watch again. Instead of waiting for Carr to release the ball, pay attention to everything that happens beforehand. Watch the Raiders' tackles shoot their arms out and manhandle their defenders, while the guards refuse to cede an inch. Watch the chasm that opens up between the offensive line and the quarterback, an expanse of green that never seems to close. Watch the clock as the seconds tick by.

That's what Derek Carr remembers from that day. The time and the space and, more than anything, the smacking of pads and the crunching of bones and the terrible cries of mountain-sized men being knocked around by his blockers. He remembers dropping behind his offensive line as thunderous collisions unfolded in front of him, bearing witness to a level of violence that still leaves him awestruck.

"You can see it on film and you can see it on TV and you can see it in person," he says. "But when you're behind it?"

Behind 10-foot eyelashes, his blue eyes widen.

"You can hear it."

There comes a point in every story about Derek Carr when his older brother's name is invoked, typically as source material for the young quarterback's innate gifts -- and, until recently, his perceived flaws. David Carr, the Houston Texans' No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, famously went bust. When Derek entered the draft in 2014, he had put up Heisman-worthy numbers at Fresno State, but David's story lingered in scouting reports like a bad Yelp review, and several QB-starved teams (including Houston) passed on the younger brother, sending him tumbling into the second round.

Their loss. After two and a half seasons with the Raiders, Derek has bloomed into a viable MVP candidate, steering his team to seven wins on the back of an exhilarating aerial attack. Heading into Monday night's tilt with the Texans in Mexico City, he has thrown 17 TDs and just three interceptions, a ratio that puts him in elite company and could set him up for a mammoth new deal. "When the ball is in his hands late in the game, everybody believes something big is gonna happen," says Matt Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback who now works as an ESPN analyst. "I saw that with Brett Favre when I was his teammate."

And so it is that Derek's story has finally subsumed his origin myth -- and that his brother's failure, once an indelible part of that record, has faded away like a discredited theory. But to ignore it would also be a mistake. Because while Carr has risen on the strength of his unique talents, he has soared because of the giants who stand in front of him -- those violent actors who buy him room to breathe, a luxury David never experienced as a young quarterback. "I've been able to see complete, total opposite sides of it," Carr says. "I saw my brother in Houston have nothing. And I have our offensive line, which I think is the best in the NFL."

The contrast is astonishing. David, who played behind a rotating cast of human turnstiles on the then newly formed Texans, was sacked a record 76 times during his rookie year, which is more than Derek has been taken down since entering the NFL. This year the Raiders' offensive line has allowed just 11 sacks and 21 quarterback hits, ranking first in the league through Week 10. They've held up against stiff competition. The Broncos' dominant front seven, which entered their Nov. 6 game against the Raiders with the best pressure percentage of any team since 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information, hassled Carr on a mere 21 percent of his dropbacks, Denver's worst performance to that point of the season.

To hear Carr tell it, battling Von Miller & Co. was like flying over traffic in a private jet. "We just played the best pass rushers in the NFL and it was the most comfortable I've felt," he says. The Raiders began building the current iteration of the line in 2014, the year rookie Carr became the team's starter. Right tackle Menelik Watson was already on the roster; GM Reggie McKenzie added left tackle Donald Penn in free agency, then selected Gabe Jackson, the team's right guard, in the draft. The Raiders signed veteran center Rodney Hudson in 2015, then splurged a year later on Kelechi Osemele, arguably the league's most formidable guard. To ensure that Osemele could continue playing inside, McKenzie re-signed Penn, and the line that fans call Carr Insurance was born.

This influx of talent has come at a price. Thanks in part to their quarterback's cheap contract, the Raiders currently devote $37.7 million in cap dollars to the offensive line, $3 million more than what any other team pays. When asked if he's aware of how expensive his line is, Carr nods. "As it should be," he says. "Mr. McKenzie told me from the beginning, when I was named the starter, he said, 'We're gonna build this thing around you.' They see that I'm valuable to them. They want to protect me."

Donald Penn remembers the first time he saw Derek Carr at training camp. As he and the other starters looked on, the rookie quarterback fired bombs to the Raiders' backups, showing off his crisp, flawless throwing motion. "I was like, 'This kid's got something about him,'" Penn says. "He carried himself with a swagger."

Penn -- older, tattooed, a little brash -- would seem to have little in common with Carr, who is almost comically wholesome, the sort of athlete destined to star in ads for milk and comfortable jeans. "I've never heard him say a cuss word!" Penn says. But Carr, who grew up hanging around David in locker rooms for more than a decade (when he was 6, he says, he used to eat lunch with his brother in the high school cafeteria), has always slid into new groups with ease. When he became the Raiders' starter, he began attending the offensive line meetings and tagging along for their steakhouse dinners, gawking as his massive teammates overloaded the table with food. He can recite information about their hobbies and their families, and he's shared his strong Christian faith with them. He often tells them he loves them.

While Carr has bonded with the entire group, he's grown closest with Hudson, the center who sets protections during games. Carr says he always pulls up a chair next to Hudson during team meetings and that the two of them will often stay up late on Saturday nights, bouncing ideas off each other in the team hotel. "We just go to another level in our discussions -- stuff we don't want everyone to hear because their brains might explode," he says with a laugh.

Hudson, a soft-spoken Alabama native, says he'll be out at dinner, look at his phone and see that "DC" has been texting him videos of plays. "We're in constant communication," he says.

The Raiders' offensive line is unique in several ways, aside from being the most expensive. Its starting unit is composed entirely of black players; Penn says they've hung posters of the NCAA-championship-winning 1966 Texas Western basketball team and the Tuskegee Airmen, other groups that shared similar distinctions, in their practice room. It's also the heaviest line in football, with the average lineman weighing in at 324.2 pounds. That runs counter to the trend of teams employing lighter, more athletic linemen who can move side to side while blocking.

Raiders O-line coach Mike Tice says he wants blockers who are brainy and athletic, but he doesn't deny that he's assembled a group of road-grading sledgehammers. The line's muscle was on full display in the Denver game, when the Raiders averaged 5.1 yards per rush. At one point, the team ran the same play 10 times in a row, simply overpowering the Broncos' defensive line with brute force.

In addition to tallying knockdowns (Jackson, the right guard, is known for racking up pancake blocks), Tice also tracks takedowns, which occur when a lineman uses his hands to bring down a rusher. "People say you can't be physical pass-protecting -- they think you can only be physical in the run game. I disagree," he says. "Even if we're passing, I still want to knock guys down and keep the quarterback clean." Carr is known for his lightning-quick release, but Tice wants his line to buy him enough time so that he can set his feet before taking deep shots, especially against defenses that play tight coverage. "We pride ourselves on that," he says.

"When a quarterback can step into his throws and he's got an arm like Derek?" He chuckles. "People are in trouble."

When Carr tells stories about his linemen mauling defensive players, he omits the opponents' names "to be respectful." The 25-year-old is incredibly polite and relentlessly positive. It sometimes seems he was manufactured in a lab for franchise quarterbacks, designed to appeal to GMs and grandmothers alike. So it's a little jarring when he gets fired up in response to a question about his brother's career in Houston. "I feel so bad for him because their team sucked," he says. (If that seems milquetoast, consider that "sucked" might be the closest thing to profanity in Carr's vocabulary.) "That's a team you dream of playing. The Raiders, if we would've played that team -- it would've been ridiculous. We would've looked forward to that."

In high school, Carr was asked to write a paper making an argument on any topic. He elected to write about why the Texans shouldn't trade his brother. What quarterback wouldn't have struggled, young Derek wrote, with such a feeble supporting cast? He says David would've "absolutely" thrived behind the Raiders' line. "If I was on that Houston Texans team, I don't know if my body would've held up," he says. These days, when Carr sees quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Sam Bradford scrambling behind slipshod protection, he cringes. "Honestly, I feel for them," he says. "I'm so thankful for what I have -- what we have."

It's impossible to overstate the impact that offensive line play has on the development of a young quarterback. Just look at Dallas, where rookie Dak Prescott is thriving. While Prescott is undeniably talented, he has also been blessed with the opportunity to throw passes behind a battalion of human tanks. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Carson Wentz struggled in Philadelphia after Lane Johnson, the Eagles' stud right tackle, was suspended and replaced with an inexperienced blocker.

David Carr, who now works for the NFL Network, says that, after being repeatedly sacked and hit, he grew wary of his protection and gradually developed a skittishness that took permanent hold in his psyche. He compares being an NFL rookie to childhood -- a little boy or girl who grows up without encountering danger is more likely to become fearless. "It's like that with quarterbacks," he says. "If you're never in a situation where it's a complete disaster, you can develop at a normal rate."

He sees that growth in Derek. In college, the younger Carr completed 72 percent of his passes in a clean pocket but just 29 percent when under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information. During his first two years in the NFL, he posted QBR ratings of 9.7 when pressured and 7.8 under duress. This year his QBR when pressured has risen to 41.4, which was eighth best in the NFL heading into Week 11.

Because Carr mostly avoids contact, he's learned not to fear it, even during the rare plays when his linemen get pushed around. "They've brainwashed me," he says with a laugh. As he's grown more composed and intrepid, he's become comfortable making adjustments on the fly. Take, for example, that throw to Cooper, the 43-yard completion in the Saints game in Week 1. "Amari wasn't even supposed to get the ball," he says. "But because they protected me for so long, I saw that no one was going anywhere. So I looked off the safety for, like, three seconds, and he had to take the bait. That ball never should've been completed against that coverage."

Going forward, Carr says, he plans to continue taking more risks on the field, trying his hand at creative looks and passes. "It's helped me take my game to another level," he says. In Oakland, he has the freedom to experiment -- and the time, and the space.

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