Raiders fans are getting déjà vu.
Franchise quarterback Derek Carr has a fracture in his back and will miss two to six weeks, according to Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. Carr was scrambling in the backfield trying to avoid a sack from multiple Broncos defenders when, falling toward the ground, it appeared he took a knee in the back from Broncos defensive end Adam Gotsis. Carr stayed down on the field before heading to the blue medical tent on the sideline, and eventually the locker room.
Initially Del Rio said that Carr had suffered only from back spasms, but now with a more serious diagnosis, Carr could miss considerable time, which would be a devastating for the Raiders and could shift the landscape of the AFC. The Raiders entered the season as Super Bowl contenders, but now are 2-2 in a crowded AFC West. The Chiefs are the last undefeated team left in football, while Denver, which beat the Raiders 16-10 on Sunday, has a defense that could finish the season no. 1 in DVOA for the third consecutive year. If Carr’s return is at the later end of the two-to-six-week window, his absence could be enough to sink the Raiders in the AFC West and keep them from returning to the playoffs.
Oakland looked like the best team in the NFL last season before Carr broke his fibula on Christmas Eve. In the Raiders’ first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, they were forced to turn to Connor Cook and lost to the Texans, 27-14, in the wild-card round. This time, EJ Manuel entered the game and went on to throw the game-losing interception late in the fourth quarter, a timely reminder that there’s no replacing Carr in Oakland. He is one of the most fun players to watch in the league (and one of the worst singers), and he threw for 610 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions while completing 70.3 percent of his passes through the first three games this season as he led the Raiders to a 2-1 start. With the Raiders poised to leave Oakland soon for Las Vegas, the time is ticking for the team to bring one last Super Bowl to its longtime city. Now, the Raiders have lost their wiggle room in the most competitive division in the league, and, even if their starting quarterback returns soon, his back could flare up again at a moment’s notice.
The timing of Carr's return is crucial. The Raiders will take on the banged-up Ravens and the winless Chargers in weeks 5 and 6, both winnable games even with Manuel under center. In the four weeks after that, Oakland will play the Chiefs, visit the Bills’ stifling defense in Buffalo, and play the Dolphins in Miami before getting their bye week to prepare for New England in Week 11. If Carr can’t return until the Patriots game, the outcome of Oakland's season will depend on how Manuel, who has started three games since 2014, performs at the helm.
Before he was injured, Carr was 10-of-18 for 143 yards and a touchdown. And though Oakland trailed 16-7 when he went down, the Raiders are going nowhere in the AFC West without their $125 million quarterback under center. Derek Carr now figuratively has put the team on his back.
This piece was updated after publication when the nature of Carr’s injury was confirmed.