Soon after taking over as interim coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tony Sparano had a simple message to deliver to quarterback Derek Carr: This is your team.
With the team winless and dealing with the aftermath of coach Dennis Allen's firing, Carr no longer had the adjustment time normally afforded to a rookie quarterback.
In his first game under his new coach, Carr heeded the command and delivered his best performance yet in his first NFL season. Carr threw four touchdown passes in Oakland's 31-28 loss to San Diego on Sunday. But even the late interception that sealed the defeat couldn't completely overshadow the excitement Carr has generated as the Raiders' best hope to end a decade of losing.
“I'm the same person,” Carr said. “I didn't change who I was. But instead of sitting back and not stepping on toes, he said, 'It's your team. It's your team, take it over. That means you can demand more now. We're past the rookie step. There's no more rookie. You're the leader of this football team. The franchise, here, now go.' Now I can demand things from guys.”
It helps that Carr is also delivering himself, showing improvement each week as he grows more comfortable in the NFL. Despite playing on a bum left ankle and knee that limited him all week in practice, Carr got off to a fast start against the Chargers.
On the third play from scrimmage, he recognized a disguised blitz and was able to wait in the pocket long enough for Andre Holmes to break free on a double move. Carr then hit Holmes in stride with a perfectly placed deep ball that led to a 77-yard TD, Oakland's longest scoring throw in five seasons.
Carr found James Jones in a tight window for a 6-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He then went to his third option on a 47-yard score to Brice Butler in the third quarter.
Carr gave Oakland the lead in the fourth quarter when he patiently waited for Holmes to break open in the back of the end zone on a rollout.
Sparano said Carr came to the sideline a few times asking for a certain player to be put into the game so he could run a specific play for him, a sign for growth for the rookie.
“It will be different guys, but in his mind he had a vision for the play,” Sparano said. “He knew what he wanted to do and where the matchup could be. I think it's really important when a quarterback starts to feel comfortable with his people.”
The game ended on a downer when Carr threw an interception on a deep ball in the closing minutes with Oakland driving for a possible tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown.
With the Raiders just a few yards from field goal range, the coaching staff had enough confidence in Carr to let him take a shot downfield. Carr found a one-on-one matchup with Butler against rookie Jason Verrett down the left side. But Verrett ripped the ball away from Butler for an acrobatic interception that sealed the game.
That could not damper the optimism that the Raiders might have a quarterback to build around for the first time since Rich Gannon's career ended a decade ago.
“If he sees a matchup that he likes he's going to throw it, especially if we win on that matchup,” Holmes said. “If we had made a play early on then he's going to definitely try to look to make another big play by throwing it out there.”
Carr has deep knowledge of the travails for a rookie quarterback on a struggling team. He watched big brother David get battered around 12 years ago as the No. 1 overall draft pick for the expansion Houston Texans.
The beating David Carr took behind a patchwork offensive line stunted his growth and he never developed into a top-flight NFL starter. Derek has gotten significantly better protection, getting sacked just three times on his first 167 pass attempts, compared to 41 on David's first 167.
“I watched a certain rookie quarterback with the same last name about 12 years ago and I'm glad it's a little different now because those guys played their tails off,” Derek Carr said of his offensive line. “These guys they do a great job. They really do. They really care about keeping me clean.”