The Raiders are now 9-2, almost completely locked into a playoff berth, and beginning to earn the full respect of onlookers throughout the league.
That’s what happened Sunday, early in the second half, frightening the daylight out of any Raiders fan that was even casually following the game. Carr said:
“Probably some of the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life. … Obviously, it hurt. As long as I could deal with the pain of it, that was it.”
Carr’s picture was spread across social media, with three if his fingers pointing one way, and his pinky finger looking a little lost, and pointing in a different direction.
Carr trotted off the field, before running into the locker room with a Raiders trainer. X-rays were taken, negative, and then Carr was bandaged up and given a glove by the equipment manager. He ran back out to the field and was greeted by a roar of applause.
Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio wasn’t looking towards the tunnel, his eyes were keenly focused on the game action, but he knew what happened behind him:
“It’s only number 4. It’s either Woodson, and he’s in the booth now, or it’s Derek Carr. Maybe Khalil Mack, but I saw Khalil.”
And linebacker Bruce Irvin explained his emotions at the moment:
“It was like Jesus just rose from the dead.”
Carr is clearly the Raiders key to success. He’s the most important player on the team, and is making a case to be named the league’s most valuable player.
If there’s any consolation, especially for a team that’s dealt with an un-ordinary amount of heartbreak, Carr has only been sacked 13 times this season, best in the NFL, including twice against the Panthers.
The offensive line has kept him upright, and what happened to Carr’s pinky on Sunday was a freak accident that shouldn’t have much impact down the road.
And even if something terrible happened, Del Rio says that the Raiders have developed into a team that won’t accept any excuse:
“I believe that, and we’re not going to accept any excuses. If it didn’t finish the way it did, I wouldn’t be up here giving you any. We’re going to man up. It was a tough set of circumstances, okay, but my belief is you never whine about it. You go to work, You do the best you can in the situation you find yourself in as a football team, that’s how we’re going to do it.”
And as long as the Raiders have Carr, the first ever Raiders quarterback with five game-winning drives during the fourth quarter or overtime, excuses generally aren’t needed, anyway.
Free agent evaluation
It’s clear that the Raiders are real, here and ready to compete in the playoffs. Their season is far from over.
We’re also at the point in the season where the team’s strengths and weaknesses are clear — there are no match-ups that skewed the numbers too heavily, and the film is abundant.
Oakland has several impending free agents, and for the first time in a few years, aren’t swimming in a pool of Franklins.
In no other area are the Raiders set to re-tool than on their defense: Malcolm Smith, Perry Riley Jr., D.J. Hayden, Nate Allen, Denico Autry and Stacy McGee are all free agents. The Raiders, if they wanted to, can’t keep them all.
They have enough in the defensive backfield to draft another safety during the first two days of the draft, and perhaps roll with one of their current corners as the number 3, someone like T.J. Carrie.
That would save somewhere around $5 million.
Let Autry and McGee walk. After all, they drafted Jihad Ward — an extremely raw yet powerful player — in the second round, and also have Justin Ellis and Dan Williams. They also have Aldon Smith, likely to be back from suspension before the 2017 season begins, so long as he keeps things on the straight and narrow.
And, without splitting hairs, that’s not something that can be taken to the bank.
For these reasons, it seems logical that the Raiders bring in a premium outside linebacker, of which there seem to be a few available.
The three aforementioned pass rushers can be dominant, and line up at different spots.
Any of those names would help to address the outside, though there are some intriguing questions at middle linebacker. Few names stick out as free agents go, and still, the one’s that are somewhat notable have more question marks than Riley or Smith.
A few guys may be there when the Raiders first-round draft selection comes, such as Reuben Foster of Alabama or Raekwon McMillan of Ohio State.
Whether it happens through the draft, or free agency, bringing in a big-time inside linebacker could turn the Raiders defense into something special. If there was another elite outside rusher to help Khalil Mack as well?
Well, then the roster wouldn’t be terribly different from the one Denver put together in 2015. And with an offense that is among the league’s best.
Week 12 photo gallery
A Carr without wheels
Quarterback Derek Carr hurt his right hand during the opening drive of the second half, a blown snap recovered by the Panthers being one of the easier to swallow pills for Oakland on the play — their franchise leader’s pinky finger appeared to be dangling, out-of-place and clearly causing plenty of pain.
Luckily for the Raiders, Carr returned after missing only one drive.
Without Carr, though, the Raiders showed they clearly prefer Matt McGloin to rookie Connor Cook, and they received a glimpse of how defenses would play him.
The Raiders ran the ball toward the left tackle on the first play and between right tackle and right guard on the second.
Third down, the Panthers rushed defensive back Tre Boston from McGloin’s blind side, and though the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass, it could have just as easily been a fumble as the ball flew upwards and eventually out-of-bounds.
That’s the sort of thing McGloin would see often, and it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where Cook would receive a look at starter if Carr was unavailable.
Ironically, McGloin makes nearly twice as much money as Carr after signing a second round tender this offseason worth $2.55 million. Carr will earn just under $1.5 million in 2016.
But the difference in respect given by defenses and the Raiders’ coaching staff is clear. The limitations, should Carr miss extended time with some type of injury at some point in some season, are staggeringly different between the two.
McGloin won’t be throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass in tight coverage more than once in a season. McGloin won’t see an open field with zone defense and four-man pressure. He won’t see the type of contract extension that is expected for Carr.
In rare occurrences, a starter will get hurt and the backup will set the league ablaze. Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, Vinny Testaverde and recently, rookies Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott have stepped in under unplanned circumstances and turned in good-to-great performances.
Matt McGloin is not that guy, though, and an injury to Carr that held him out over more than a few drives would be devastating to the Raiders’ playoff potential.
The Raiders have been unable to contain almost anyone this season, hiding some of the defensive growth they’ve managed to come by, and a lot of the blows have come on explosive plays — which are passing or rushing events which tack on 25 yards or better.
Like when Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin caught a 44-yard touchdown pass, and Ginn Jr. scores from 88 yards out. These are the plays that have killed the Raiders all season. It’s how the Panthers returned punches after playing anemic football for the bulk of Sunday, and how they kept things interesting.
It’s how the Falcons air attack beat Oakland in their home opener, and how the Chiefs did it on the ground.
Oakland has struggled to completely stop the big passing play, though, even if they’ve gained ground against the run.
With about 1:47 left in the game against Carolina, the Raiders defense allowed consecutive gains of more than 15 yards.
If not for some major pressures from Irvin and Mack, the Raiders might not have been celebrating at a quarter ’til 5 on Sunday evening. Because Carolina was moving the ball at will during the second half, and things were looking an awful lot like the Atlanta game, where Matt Ryan turned the tide during the Falcons’ final possession.
This is a big deal even for a team that just notched their ninth win in 11 games, because while the only thing that would prevent a playoff berth is the roof crashing in, they’re going to be facing some pretty goof offenses.
None more dangerous than the New England Patriots, led by San Mateo native Tom Brady, and featuring some unique and diverse play calls.
One thing the Raiders have going for them is that they’ve managed to limit plays within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. The defense is coming together, and it’s something that was expected, though something that wasn’t supposed to take until late in the season.
Growing pains happen. They do. And so does the growth, usually.
Irvin says that the melding that Oakland’s defense has shown has just happened in an organic nature, a good sign for more growth.
And it shouldn’t get lost that, while the Panthers are a 4-8 team, they just led the league in points scored one year ago, and that they possess a very dynamic offense that can hurt their opposition in any number of ways.
But the Raiders aren’t there, yet, and they still have time to mend their fences and improve. Irvin said:
“If you look at the great teams, when I was in Seattle, we always find a way to win. That’s what the good teams do. No matter the situation, no matter the adversity, you always find a way to buckle down and come out with a win.”
Since the week 5 win while hosting San Diego, the Raiders haven’t allowed a 300 yard passer. Only the Chiefs have eclipsed 400 yards total offense in that span, also, thanks in large part to a 45 yard run from tailback Spencer Ware.
What’s happened during that stretch?
Khalil Mack, for one, has seven sacks, three forced fumbles, a pick-6 and 29 tackles. That’s a big deal.
Quarterbacks are finding fewer windows to throw through, and the pass rush is getting that extra half-second to record sacks. Opposing offensive linemen are getting worn down, and offensive coordinators are being forced out of their comfort zones.
The growth doesn’t show in the final score, which might be disappointing, but signs are popping up more and more: Oakland’s defense is getting closer to their goal. And it might not be long before they really get there.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.