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The Unprecedented Education of Derek Carr

The younger brother of a former no. 1 overall pick, Carr has blossomed into one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Last season, a broken leg derailed an MVP- and Super Bowl–caliber season, but after a rocky start to 2017, Carr and the Raiders are almost back on track.

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one uses the practice mode on Madden. This is because the vast majority of us are reasonable. It seems antithetical to the point of video games, which are an empty-calorie, harmless bit of time wasting. You don’t train in order to enter a bouncy castle. And you don’t practice video games; you play.

This, however, is what 10-year-old Derek Carr liked to do with his brother David.

When David was a top NFL prospect at Fresno State in the early 2000s, he would grab one of the controllers and throw as many complicated defenses as he could at young Derek in practice mode.

“I would explain to him what routes beat what coverages, what the vulnerabilities are in Cover 2, Cover 3,” David explained to me. “And he just ate it up. He’d just be in these practice sessions, dissecting coverages at 10 years old.”

This education started to build. When David, who went no. 1 overall to the Houston Texans in 2002, would hang out with his kid brother on Mondays and Tuesdays during the NFL season, Derek just wanted to watch tape.

“We’d eat dinner, watch game film, and he’d be right there next to me, sitting there for hours, figuring out what the Jaguars were doing defensively,” said David, now an analyst at the NFL Network. Their father would tell David about Derek sitting in the stands at his brother’s games, yelling out the defense’s plays. “He’d be calling out what the defense was going to do before the snap because of their alignment. He’s 12 years old,” David said. “This is the same little guy playing for his junior high flag football team, and he knows everything about the Titans’ schemes.”

No longer a rookie at that point, David Carr had been around enough NFL football to know the difference between a great quarterback and a roster cut. He’d seen plenty of talented passers fall out of the league because they couldn’t retain all of the information coaches would throw at them. So David would slip Derek any information he could. He taught him how to identify coverages using one player as the tell, how to identify player leverages and defensive fronts. “So we’d be watching film and he’d say, ‘The nickel is inside here, so it’ll be Cover 2,’” David said. Derek’s quick diagnoses could even be a minor embarrassment for David, “because there would be times he would pick it up before me.”

There are few NFL quarterbacks with a football education quite like Carr’s. Everyone who knew him before his NFL days has a story that makes him out to be a kind football Mozart, with an advanced understanding of his craft at an early age. Of course, this is ridiculous. Mozart could never check into a man-beating route if he got a good look.

In a year when there are few great quarterbacks and fewer great teams, Carr and the Raiders have the capability for both—even if they haven’t quite shown it yet.

Last season, Carr was an MVP candidate, as the Raiders went 12-4, propelled by his seven fourth-quarter comebacks, the second most ever in a single season. They looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders until Carr broke his leg in Week 16. The injury was so devastating to the team that coach Jack Del Rio said the only lesson he learned from the season was not to lose your quarterback. The Raiders got a brief refresher on that lesson this season when Carr missed a game two weeks ago with a back injury. Their fears were confirmed in an uninspiring 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens with EJ Manuel at the helm.

This season has been a strange one for the Raiders. In March, they announced they are moving to Las Vegas, but they may stay in Oakland through 2020. The team brought star running back Marshawn Lynch out of retirement: He’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry thus far and is currently suspended for making contact with an official. Carr has had 8.4 percent of his passes dropped—the second-highest rate in the NFL. Star wideout Amari Cooper was in a slump so bad that Football Outsiders compared him to former Bucs flameout Michael Clayton—only for Cooper to then break out with 210 yards in last week’s dramatic 31-30 win over Kansas City that featured the Raiders running two plays with no time left on the clock.

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr pumps his fist to celebrate a touchdown Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

That game, like most of this Raiders season, was one giant middle finger to everything we thought we knew about the team. Less than a week ago, the 26-year-old Carr was the guy who wasn’t going deep. Then against Kansas City he threw the most deep passes in a single game of anyone in the NFL this season. Before the Chiefs game, he was throwing passes historically quickly after the snap, then he took significantly longer in that particular game. The only constants for Oakland seem to be a below-average defense (ranked 26th in yards allowed this season, same as last season) and a great offensive line. Carr has been under pressure slightly less often this season—on 22 percent of his dropbacks, after being pressured on 23.9 percent last season, which was already an NFL low.

Statistically, Carr has been steady from a year ago—completing virtually the same percentage of his passes, averaging the same yards per attempt, and possessing a quarterback rating one point different from last season. It is hard to define what’s been missing from the Raiders this season—except to say it wasn’t there for the first five of Carr’s starts and was definitely there against Kansas City.

The Raiders stand at 3-4, but with the entire league bunched up tighter than ever before, that puts Oakland within one win of three teams who currently possess playoff spots.

If Oakland’s predicament and its promise seems to mirror that of the modern NFL at large, so does its quarterback.

Like most of his generation, coming out of college he was given the label of “spread” quarterback, a term that in NFL circles translates, roughly, to “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

The fundamental misunderstanding of the way a spread quarterback translates to the NFL is that it’s not about a type of offense; it’s about how much responsibility the quarterback has at the line of scrimmage and after the snap. There are plenty of college quarterbacks who simply look to the sideline for a play, have simple reads on a given play, don’t have to do much critical thinking on a given play, and still put up gaudy numbers. Carr is not one of those players—neither was Dak Prescott or Deshaun Watson, yet the lack of nuance among NFL decision-makers when evaluating spread quarterbacks continues.

“We gave Derek enough rope to hang himself and he never did,” said former Fresno State offensive coordinator Dave Schramm. Carr called 80 percent of his own plays on first and second down. Oakland offensive coordinator Todd Downing told me that is one of the reasons Carr had so much success so early in his NFL career.

Aside from Schramm’s guidance, David Carr said there was another reason his brother was able to eschew most spread offense norms while growing up: David wouldn’t allow Derek to look to the sideline for plays. “I said, ‘I hate it,’” David said. “And I told him, ‘If you ever do that, I’m no longer coming to your games.’”

Derek Carr is built for late-game magic. According to Downing, Carr’s unprecedented football education allows him to process plays quickly and improvise—both crucial to any two-minute drill. But beyond the know-how comes the attitude. His older brother sees it come out on the basketball court.

“First of all, he’ll dunk on my little son. He has absolutely no remorse,” David said.

“But what’s really important is that he loves being the point guard. He loves those moments and he always wants to be down and then win it in the last few seconds,” David said. “The difference with him and other quarterbacks is that he feels like the defense is always on their heels. Most guys think the defense is ready to attack you—but he thinks he can dictate the pace of the game.”

Especially in the final few minutes of a game, Carr is so good at spreading the football around like he’s playing basketball. That ability is what won the game against the Chiefs.

The Raiders travel to take on the 4-2 Bills on Sunday in perhaps one of their most pivotal games of the season. It’s a matchup with what looks like a direct competitor for a wild-card spot. Carr, the guy who loves big moments, will have to be the player who carries the team on his back against one of the best defenses in the league.

If all goes well, he’ll be a point guard again this weekend, but only so much translates from the hardwood to the gridiron. “Also,” David said, beginning his brother’s hoops scouting report, “he never passes.”