To describe Sunday as a monumental event or some passing of a torch is a slippery stretch, especially when we’ve never actually seen a real, live torch passed on a football field. Just as no one is lock-certain that Derek Carr is All That, no one is dumb enough to dismiss Peyton Manning as All Done. To calm down, try chamomile tea.
An assortment of compelling circumstances will be in place, though, for the Raiders’ biggest home game in a while. With Manning in the Coliseum for maybe the final time with the Denver Broncos, here is Carr’s chance to leave a lasting impression on the old man and continue his rise among the ranks of dynamic, young NFL quarterbacks. He isn’t in the elite category yet, or even close, and if a national mania was growing last week after two terrific games, it stalled after a loss to previously winless Chicago in which Carr was simply decent and couldn’t locate nascent receiver Amari Cooper in the second half. Anyone expecting Manning to anoint the kid as the sport’s Next Ginormous Thing during a conference call Wednesday … well, you’d be underwhelmed by his answer.
“Yeah, he’s fun,” Manning said. “But hey, I’ve always been a proponent of playing early. There’s nothing quite like getting game experience. He played, I believe, all 16 games last year and that just plays a huge role when you have that experience. And just learning how fast guys are and getting on the same page as your receivers in game speed, game experience. It looks like he’s certainly using last year’s experience to his advantage, and it looks like he’s off to a really good start this year.”
Polite as always, Carr said he has had limited interaction with Manning, little more than a brief chat after the last Broncos-Raiders meeting in 2014. “He told me, ‘Good job, keep working, stay healthy if you can.’ That’s about it,” Carr said. Clearly, he’s as mesmerized by the master’s body of work as the rest of us, yet not so much that he doesn’t want to beat his brains out. This is what’s so appealing about Carr. He isn’t cocky, but his confidence is potent and pervasive in a charming, downhome, Jesus Loves You way.
“I’m glad I don’t have to play defense against him. I wouldn’t help us,” Carr said of Manning. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s one the best to ever to do it. I’ve always had respect for that guy. It’s an honor to play against him. But at the same time, I’m trying to beat him and get that win.”
If you haven’t noticed, the quarterbacking hierarchy is shifting radically after years of ownership by Manning and Tom Brady. In fact, the current iteration of Manning is hardly recognizable. After four neck surgeries, it’s almost a miracle that he’s even playing at 39, and if his passes once were dart-like in their accuracy and premeditated guile, now people hold their breath every time he throws a wobbler near the sideline. John Elway, who runs the Broncos these days, wants to give Manning a second Super Bowl ring to hush everyone who thinks he’s a championship underachiever. But Elway and his new coach, longtime buddy Gary Kubiak, are going to do it their way.
And their way is with a past-his-prime Peyton managing the game, not dominating it, to the point Manning was angry with Kubiak last month for making him take the majority of snaps from under center. Manning finally convinced him to adjust to more snaps out of the shotgun and pistol formations, but just last weekend, when the Broncos were improving to 4-0 with a 23-20 victory over Minnesota, Manning’s two interceptions almost sabotaged the effort. He did direct the offense on a winning field-goal drive, proving that you’d still rather have him in the final minutes than most.
“He’s one of the all-time greats with a couple of explosive receivers. He presents problems,” said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, who experienced the Manning legend up close as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator and interim head coach the last three years. “He’s like an offensive coordinator with a computer in his head, but he also gets the snap every play. It’s a heck of a challenge. He’s a guy that’s still very much in charge of things. He has been the best two-minute operator in the league this year. That’s vintage Peyton.”
Still, Manning has been sacked 10 times behind a line that misses injured Ryan Clady. The Raiders know this — in particular, Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith — and they are foaming at the mouth. They’re also nervous as hell, realizing Manning might shred their league-worst secondary. For now, between weekly punishments and daily dealings with Kubiak, the master is in survival mode.
“Anytime you have a coaching change, yeah, things are different,” Manning said. “It’s an adjustment process and it takes time. Everybody’s trying to learn coach Kubiak’s philosophies and what he expects from us. You sort of learn in training camp, you learn more in preseason and then it’s regular season. We’re in the first quarter, just getting set to start the second quarter here, so we’re still learning, trying to do what he’s asking us to do.”
At least Manning can lean on a lethal, top-ranked defense that ravages passers such as, oh, Derek Carr. Fueled by outside pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware — who have either sacked, hit or pressured quarterbacks almost 50 times in four games — the Broncos defense is even more fearsome than when Del Rio was running it. This will be a supreme litmus test for Carr but also for the entire Raiders offense, including running back Latavius Murray, whose head will have to be straight Sunday after two fatal mistakes against the Bears.
“What do defensive coaches say? Pressure bursts pipes,” Carr said. “You just compete. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re gonna compete our tails off.”
He understands what a victory over Denver would mean. “Huge,” he said, knowing it would bring credibility that didn’t fully come with earlier wins over Cleveland and Baltimore. For Carr, it would be a signature triumph pushing him close to stardom. The quarterbacking chain of command now is ruled by Brady and Aaron Rodgers, followed at the moment by Russell Wilson. Matt Ryan, Carson Palmer and, sort of, Cam Newton. Andrew Luck, at the moment, is injured and lost. Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are showing their vulnerability to injury. Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are showing their age. Manning’s brother, Eli, is just sort of there, though capable of a huge game against the brutal 49ers. Do we dare elevate Andy Dalton? Isn’t Alex Smith just Alex Smith? Joe Flacco is looking like a one-postseason wonder, while the dual-threat imposter in Santa Clara, Colin Kaepernick, is about to go the way of Robert Griffin III and grab a ballcap. Who knows anymore what to make of Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford, Nick Foles? Jameis Winston has looked awful at times.
There are two young quarterbacking hopes in this league right now.
One is Marcus Mariota. The other is Derek Carr.
“A great young quarterback,” Kubiak said of Carr. “That’s the No. 1 thing that jumps at you. He’s very talented and makes a lot of plays, not only with his arm but with his feet. I think he really does a great job of spreading the football around and being a headache defensively.”
An ascension to a throne, Sunday is not.
But it could be the start of something.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.