Everything was going perfectly for the Raiders. They were up three scores on the Colts in the fourth quarter in Week 16, well on their way to earning their 12th win of the year and inching ever closer to sealing a first-round playoff bye. With a young, exciting core led by stud receiver Amari Cooper, monstrous pass rusher Khalil Mack, and, most importantly, strong-armed third-year quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders had finally stormed back from the NFL’s hinterland and were ready to seriously contend in the postseason — perhaps even for a Super Bowl.
And then Carr broke his leg.
Up 19 in a game that was essentially decided, the Raiders called a pass play. The pass rush got to Carr, and as he tried to escape the pocket, Colts defensive end Trent Cole dragged him to the ground, causing his leg to bend awkwardly. As Carr writhed on the ground, cameras caught owner Mark Davis watching through binoculars before appearing to scream “YOU DON’T THROW THE F***ING BALL” in that situation.
The Raiders will pay dearly for their decision to continue playing their starters. The injury turned out to be a broken fibula, and Carr will undergo surgery on Sunday.
Carr was the second quarterback to break his fibula on Saturday, as Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota also broke his in a loss to the Jaguars. But while both are young, talented quarterbacks, their teams are in two different situations. Mariota was fighting to get his team into the playoffs. The Raiders clinched their berth last week, have the second-best record in the AFC after securing the 33–25 win over Colts, and were expected to be one of the few teams capable of challenging the Patriots for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Now, their path to the Lombardi Trophy is considerably more challenging, and the playoffs look quite strange. Matt McGloin, who hasn’t seen significant playing time since 2013, will be in charge of quarterbacking a supposed contender.
Carr might not be the Raiders’ best player — Mack is possibly the best defensive player in football — but he might be their most essential. Latavius Murray is a fine running back, but Oakland doesn’t really have a way to score consistently other than asking Carr to drop back and make magic. Their offense defaults to him, even up three scores in a game that seems sealed.
Their dependence on Carr was evident about a month ago, when he injured the pinky finger on his throwing hand against Carolina. Raiders fans quickly found that while a pinky injury sounds trivial, it can seriously affect a quarterback’s ability to throw. Carr fumbled a snap and threw what was then only his fifth interception of the year. The offense stagnated. The Panthers scored 25 unanswered points. And even though Carr was clearly struggling with the injury, the Raiders only put McGloin in the game for one pass. The next week against the Chiefs, the pinky still bothered Carr, but McGloin never got in the game as Carr hurled 41 passes for a measly 117 yards.
We don’t know whether the Raiders’ reluctance to play McGloin even though Carr was dinged up was a move of deference to their young star QB or a sign that they truly fear the option of playing McGloin. Either way, the point was clear: They’d take Carr at his less-than-best rather than bust out the backup. Unless Carr was completely incapacitated, they’d stick with him.
Now, they no longer have that choice. McGloin is their only option. While we haven’t seen him much this year, we know that he’s a fighter. He was a walk-on at Penn State, yet went on to set the school’s career touchdown record (since broken by Christian Hackenberg). He was undrafted, yet went on to start six games as a rookie with the Raiders the year before they picked Carr in the second round. He has kept his gig with the team even after the Raiders signed Christian Ponder and then Matt Schaub to serve as backups and drafted Carr and Connor Cook. He’s survived through three head coaching regimes.
But he hasn’t really ever been a good NFL quarterback. Oakland lost five of the six games he started as a rookie. He only played meaningful snaps in one game in the past two seasons — last year’s season opener against the Bengals when Carr left with a hand injury in the second quarter. Led by McGloin, the team wouldn’t put points on the board until the Bengals had a 33–0 lead.
If there’s a black-and-silver lining here, it’s that the Raiders won’t be alone in fielding a backup at football’s most pivotal position in the postseason. If the playoffs were to start today, McGloin would be joined as a starter by the Dolphins’ Matt Moore, who has taken over in the wake of Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury, and the Texans’ Tom Savage, who has taken over because Brock Osweiler is not as good as Houston’s front office thought he was when signing him to a big contract this offseason. (Although he’s been roughly as good statistically as he was when he played for the Broncos last year.) None of those three players started in the first 14 weeks of the year. Now all three could potentially make a difference in the fight for a Super Bowl bid.
These are the Playoffs of the Backup Quarterback. Though of course there are the Patriots, clean and pristine with Tom Brady under center. The only hope the rest of the AFC has is for Roger Goodell to suspend Brady for wearing the wrong color cleats.