They stopped by his stall in a hushed locker room, one teammate after another, offering words or a pat on the shoulder or simply a supportive nod. This was a wicked day in the maturation of Derek Carr, a three-pick debacle in a fourth quarter as shocking as it was miserable. Surely, the sequence will be remembered as the end of the Raiders’ postseason run, in what also might be their final weeks in the dilapidated pit between the train tracks and freeway.
“He had a rough fourth,” said the head coach, Jack Del Rio. “Yeah, probably trying to do too much.”
A Carr wreck, you might say.
Someday, when he’s a star in Los Angeles making annual Pro Bowls as one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks, he’ll recall a 34-20 loss to Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs as a teaching moment. But on this day, Carr only felt frustration and pain. “It just sucked that it all happened back-to-back like that,” he said of his horror show, which included a pick-six and led to 20 unanswered Chiefs points. Given opportunities to prove unequivocally that the Raiders could beat a hot, playoff-bound opponent and turn December into a joyride, Carr crumbled under fierce defensive pressure and threw ill-advised passes in a league of no mercy. He has been too good too often this season — including an artful second-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree that sliced perfectly between two defenders — to view this as a fatal setback in his development.
But it was a moment that will give us pause before declaring him an elite quarterback. There is much work ahead for Carr and a talented offense that sometimes hums and sometimes looks discombobulated. What went wrong in the fourth?
“A lot. We turned the ball over, and we can’t do that, especially against a good football team. That’s my fault and we’ll get it fixed,” Carr said. “I get mad, obviously. I get pretty ticked off, especially how some of them happened. But sometimes those things are going to happen.
“It’s really hard to win in this league. We know how, but we obviously didn’t do that today. I didn’t do a good enough job for my team.”
The three killer mistakes should not be assigned entirely to Carr, of course. But the first one, which ignited the total collapse after he’d led an 83-yard TD drive that had given the Raiders a lead, was not a play that a seasoned expert makes. Rather than throw the ball away on second-and-10 at the Kansas City 33, leading 20-14, Carr tried to be a hero. Hit by Tamba Hali as he threw, Carr’s pass wound up in the hands of linebacker Josh Mauga, who lumbered 66 yards to the Raiders 2. From there, the dependable Smith — he’s having the last laugh, huh, Santa Clara? — hit Jeremy Maclin for the game-tying score. Smith now has thrown 305 passes since his last interception, the fourth-longest streak in NFL history, and Carr can learn something from him about savvy.
As Del Rio said, was Carr trying to do too much?
“On the first one, absolutely,” he said. “I was just trying to make a play. Seth [Roberts] popped wide open, and I was going to throw it to him when I got hit.”
He didn’t agree that he was overextending himself on the second pick. Lined up in the shotgun, Carr expected Crabtree to be streaking across the middle on a downfield route and threw on instinct. But on a wet field, on a damp and foggy Coliseum afternoon, Crabtree’s feet got tangled. “I threw the ball on time,” said Carr, “and the dude that wasn’t covering his man caught it.” That “dude” would be rookie Marcus Peters, pride of Oakland’s McClymonds High, whose so-called character issues made the 49ers repel on draft day when they could have used a lockdown cover cornerback. Peters, one of three Chiefs in the area, caught the easy liner and returned it 58 yards to the Raiders 13.
“The day was a whole lot more than I expected,” said Peters, a Raiders fan growing up. “It was hard, man, I can’t lie, to come out there and stay focused. My nerves were up and down. Early in the game, my emotions were everywhere so it took for coach and the other leaders on the team to just bring me back.”
Andy Reid, the God-fearing head coach of the Chiefs, may be alarmed to know that his assistants were pounding on the press-box glass and dropping f-bombs after the Peters interception and other game-turning plays. It’s an epidemic in Bay Area stadiums — Minnesota Vikings coaches last month in the Coliseum, incensed USC coaches at Levi’s Stadium during the Pac-12 championship game — and if it’s amusing to the media, it’s also a hint about the testosterone levels in those rooms. The Chiefs’ crew erupted again after another Carr mistake, a dropped third-down snap that led to an uninspired incompletion and a Sebastian Janikowski field-goal try — which, on this near-winter’s day, clanked off the left upright, as had a previous extra-point attempt by the normally reliable veteran known as Sea Bass.
Then came the final pick, an off-target throw off the hands of diving Amari Cooper — uh, whatever happened to Amari Cooper, anyway? — and into the paws of ex-Raider Tyvon Branch, who returned this one 38 yards for a touchdown. “We were just down, and I was trying to make a throw in there,” Carr said. “It’s a tight-window throw. It was probably not a throw I would throw early on in a football game.”
His desperation led to despair. Ultimately, it will lead to playoff elimination in a conference where the Raiders are 5-7 and would have to leapfrog at least three teams to snare the second and last wild-card berth. They won’t win in Denver next weekend, and they won’t beat Green Bay the following Sunday at the Coliseum. Maybe they win on Christmas Eve against San Diego, in what could be their final game in Oakland, but what once looked like 9-7 now smacks of 6-10.
The Raiders seem resigned to their fate, but they sure aren’t blaming Carr in the biggest optic. “He’s one of several good, young players who will continue to grow from experiences good and bad,” Del Rio said.
Charles Woodson, an inspiration all season, was devastated by his locker. “I’ve played a lot of football in my life, won a lot of games and lost a lot of games. But today was probably one of the hardest losses I’ve been a part of in my career,” he said.
But he wasn’t about to rag on Carr. “He’s young. Every experience he goes through, he’s going to learn from,” said Woodson, who, at 39, may be old but had another dramatic takeaway, literally stealing the ball from Travis Kelce just before halftime. “The ceiling is very high for Derek. This is just one blip on the radar, and he’ll be fine going forward.”
“There’s no finger pointing, no placing of blame,” said tight end Lee Smith, who caught the go-ahead scoring pass before the avalanche. “When you have a group of guys who are as close as we are, it just sucks when you don’t win. All of us just want to get this bad taste out of our mouth and get back to work.”
No one moreso than Carr. “I’m going to be learning until I’m done playing,” he said. “If that ever changes, then I’ve got to stop playing because I think too much of myself.”
Someone asked him to assess his performance. “You can grade me, I don’t know,” Carr said.
Go with an F this time.
But on a sliding scale, expect a B-plus next year, and higher grades beyond. All the good ones must fall before they thrive.
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.