Mere weeks ago, the Oakland Raiders were one of the NFL’s most confident teams. Their shared belief stemmed from a look: Before their season ended in a 27–14 playoff loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday, and before quarterback and MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve, Oakland’s players spoke glowingly of the touchdown-predicting glance that Carr would give before a big play.
“Derek looks at you, he looks at who is covering you, and he feels like you’re going to win,” tight end Clive Walford said a week before Carr’s injury. “He’ll make eye contact and you’ll know he believes in you.” When fellow tight end Mychal Rivera hauled in a fourth-quarter touchdown in an October thriller against Tampa Bay, he experienced something similar: “He knew what the progression was, knew what the defense was,” Rivera said of Carr in late December, “and he just looked at me and it gave me that confidence.”
Carr’s season ended right as his command of the offense was becoming legendary, just as he was poised to enter the sport’s top tier and become a true superstar. His soaring reputation came in part from his individual excellence and in part from the buoying effect he had on a long-beleaguered franchise finally enjoying a revival: As Raiders fan Ice Cube magically put it, “all the clowning” fans had dealt with for years had ceased. The team earned its first playoff berth after a 13-year absence, and though the prospect of relocating from Oakland loomed, so did the prospect of a playoff run. Other great things have ended poorly — the incredible Godfather franchise concluded with the regrettable The Godfather: Part III, after all. But few roaring successes have halted with a thud quite like this Raiders season. Making Brock Osweiler look competent in January was not the plan. Neither was starting rookie Connor Cook at quarterback in a playoff game.
Cook posted a passer rating of 30 against Houston, and he wasn’t the only one who flailed. Without Carr, the Raiders looked like they had lost the ability to function. The offense in particular was so feeble that head coach Jack Del Rio essentially admitted that he lacked any good solution, conceding that switching to the banged up but more experienced Matt McGloin “wasn’t going to be a big change.” Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn missed the game due to injury and center Rodney Hudson and receiver Michael Crabtree got hurt during the contest, but the real absent ingredient was Carr, who delivered seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season, tied for the second most in NFL history according to Pro-Football-Reference, which tracks data back to 1950.
The moment Carr went down in Week 16, it was clear that it would be a tremendous obstacle to overcome. Now that Oakland’s triumphant, 12-win season has crumbled so spectacularly, though, it’s safe to say this was far more than a hurdle: In terms of the impact on a contender on the eve of the postseason, this was the most damning quarterback injury in NFL history.
We’ve certainly seen crushing quarterback injuries before, but the complete context matters. Many of them happened early in the season; some happened on teams accustomed to postseason appearances. Tom Brady missed 15 games in 2008 and Peyton Manning missed all of 2011. Johnny Unitas got hurt in the preseason in 1968, as did then-megastar Michael Vick in 2003. Dan Marino blew out his Achilles during his prime in 1993, with his Dolphins sitting at 4–1. Just last season, Andy Dalton broke his thumb with his Bengals at 10–2, and they faltered down the stretch, losing a chance at the bye and eventually their first playoff game. That might sound similar to what befell Carr and the Raiders, but the Bengals had made the playoffs the previous four years, and they weren’t poised to relocate.
No late-season QB injury really compares to Carr’s Christmas Eve broken leg, which felt like something Cormac McCarthy had penned to make the consumer as miserable as possible. The break didn’t just stymie Carr’s MVP campaign and the Raiders’ Super Bowl hopes. It hurt a fan base desperate for success and bracing for abandonment. It hurt football nerds nationwide eager to see this group on the sport’s biggest stage. And it hurt a league that better succeeds when the immensely popular Raiders are good. Being so close to the peak outcome makes being robbed of it sting even more severely.
“I don’t think Raiders fans will ever totally recover from it,” said Christopher Hansen, a 31-year-old Raiders fan from Sacramento and founder of RaidersBlog.com. “One of the things that was so hard about the injury is that it was so fun to finally see a team that was good, that could bring them back at any moment, that was never out of it, and then it went away in an instant — it was really damaging to our psyches as fans.”
After more than a decade between winning seasons, though, Raiders fans aren’t the only ones asking “What if?” Carr is as well. “I said, ‘What if?’ I said, ‘Why?’ a lot in the last two weeks,” Carr told the media Sunday. “You know, it’s obviously hurt me some days. I’ve been really down and sad, but it doesn’t change who I am. … It just hurts, man.”
This should have been a very long and very glowing story about Carr’s breakthrough. “His anticipation, his ability to throw quickly from shotgun — the only player right now who’s better is Aaron Rodgers,” former Raiders quarterback and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon said in December. “He’s what the Raiders needed and he’s what they got. He’s a very strong-minded individual. He’s tough. During those first few years — he was so positive, had a great perspective. In those first few years, I’d talk to him and think, ‘It’s hard to break this guy.’” Instead, it’s an obituary for one of the most thrilling regular-season teams of this decade.
Carr was the answer, yet now the Raiders are again faced with questions. And the prospect of relocating to Las Vegas makes everything exponentially worse. When Manning got injured, Colts fans suffered through Curtis Painter starts, but they didn’t have to worry about potentially losing their team to another city. Hansen, meanwhile, is left wondering whether a great playoff run from Carr could have kept the franchise in Oakland. The Raiders will apply for relocation in the next few weeks, and Las Vegas media have observed that the loss could speed up the process.
“People thought, at least I thought, that if the Raiders could get home playoff games, do something in the playoffs, maybe that’s enough to convince [owner] Mark Davis the team should stay,” Hansen said. “This was such a gut punch. We may lose our team, and, besides that, in the NFL you don’t know how many shots you’re going to get at a title anyway.”
The Raiders have plenty to figure out this offseason. Carr’s fourth-quarter wizardry masked real flaws, including a defense that ranked 24th in yards allowed against the pass and 23rd against the run. Carr will likely be healthy when the Raiders start practicing again over the summer, but it’s unclear where they’ll be doing that practicing, or whether a team built around young stars like Carr, Khalil Mack, and Amari Cooper will be able to again rise to the occasion next season in a fierce AFC West in which every club looks dangerous. Hell, even the Chargers could have found stability by then.
“I’m gonna sit back and I’m just gonna reflect on it,” Carr told the media Sunday. “I’m gonna know that, hey, it’s not easy to win 12 games in this league. Who knows if we’ll do it again. Hopefully, we do.”
Carr’s right. It’s not easy to win 12 games in the NFL. The Raiders managed it this year thanks largely to his spectacular play, but now, after a season of defying the odds, quarterback, team, and fan base alike are poised for an offseason of uncertainty.