HENDERSON, Nev. — The slow, relieved smile creeping across his face as he called timeout with two seconds left in overtime Sunday night in front of a raucous Allegiant Stadium crowd that was part rowdy Raider Nation, part cool Vegas lounge act and all parts heart palpitations, said it all.
Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, in his eighth NFL season and after his 127th career game, was going to play in the postseason. Finally.
It didn’t matter if Daniel Carlson made the 47-yard field-goal attempt to beat the Los Angeles Chargers (the Raiders would be the AFC’s No. 5 seed and travel to the No. 4 seed Cincinnati Bengals if he did) or missed it (the Raiders would be the No. 7 seed and travel to the No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs in that case). Carr and the Raiders were in.
That Carlson drilled it for the Raiders’ record sixth walk-off win of the season, Carr’s 30th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or OT, didn’t only force Las Vegas’ way into the postseason for the second time since 2002, it allowed the Raiders to prevent the rival Chargers, whose defensive end Joey Bosa essentially challenged Carr’s manhood back in Week 4, from advancing to the tournament.
Maybe that relieved smile was more of a “Take that, haters” smirk.
Could you blame him if it was the latter? Carr, the most polarizing figure in franchise history — fans either adore him or loathe him and there is little in between — accomplished personal and team goals with the 35-32 win to improve the Raiders’ record in this extended, oft-hellish 17-game season to 10-7.
“Like my favorite player Kobe [Bryant] said, ‘Job’s not done,'” Carr said after the game.
Indeed, it may just be getting started for a quarterback and team that seemed poised to lose out and undergo a total rebuild — its third in less than a decade — after getting embarrassed 48-9 at Kansas City on Dec. 12 to fall to 6-7. Even more so after Carr’s head-scratching deep ball interception late in regulation at the Cleveland Browns a week and a day later.
But the Raiders rallied to win that game, the first of four straight victories, and now Carr can add playoff QB to a résumé that already includes virtually every passing record in Raiders history, even if he has lost 13 more games than he has won in his career (57-70). His playoff debut will come Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium against the Bengals (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
“Yeah, it’s nice, but don’t forget, we’ve already done it — this is the second time; I just get to play this time,” said Carr, who missed out on the Raiders’ playoff appearance in 2016 after suffering a broken right fibula in the penultimate game of the season.
“For me, it’s an exciting time. Obviously, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was drafted. That’s all I want to do is get to the playoffs and try and win a championship. And the fact that we’re in the tournament, it’s really cool. Again, like I said afterwards, I’m super thankful. I’ve worked my tail off. I’ve prayed that I could experience that one day and I get to. It’s cool.
“But at the same time, my goal wasn’t just to make the playoffs; it was a part of it. But you always have bigger goals and bigger dreams and you’re always trying to achieve more. So, for me, it’s exciting, but still trying to keep that laser focus on the job at hand.”
It’s been a long road, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. A lot on my mind in these pictures. Keep grinding, keep that chip on your shoulder, and never let anyone tell you what you can’t do. We made it back #RaiderNation now let’s have some fun! pic.twitter.com/FYfTXMCKR0
— Derek Carr (@derekcarrqb) January 10, 2022
Only two players remain on the Raiders roster from that 2016 team that finished 12-4 and got thumped at the Houston Texans in a wild-card game — Carr and running back Jalen Richard.
Talk about turnover.
“As a quarterback from [five] years ago to now, he’s way better than what he was back then, even when he was having the MVP talks,” said Richard, who added Carr is both smarter and stronger while laughing. “He loves to flex his arms.
“I hurt for him back in 2016, when he wasn’t able to finish the season the way he wanted to finish it because, again, he was having such a stellar season. Now, he’s coming in [and] he’s glowing. Man, I was so happy for him.”
Carr passed for a career-high 4,804 yards this season, fifth in the league, setting a Raiders record by eclipsing the 4,689 yards Rich Gannon threw for in his 2002 MVP 16-game season.
But Carr’s 3.7% TD percentage was the third-lowest of his career (he had 23 TD passes on a career-high 626 attempts). His 14 interceptions and 13 fumbles were career highs, while the 40 sacks he took were the second-most of his career.
And only Ryan Fitzpatrick (147) and Archie Manning (139) had played more regular-season games than Carr without a playoff appearance … until Carr takes the field in Cincinnati (Jim Zorn is next at 106 and Jeff Blake is at 100).
But to use the maxim Carr uttered the most down the stretch — nobody cares.
Not even with the distractions and adversity the team and QB faced this season, from coach Jon Gruden’s sudden resignation in the wake of his email scandal to Henry Ruggs III’s high-speed car crash that claimed the life of a 23-year-old woman and her dog to Damon Arnette getting cut after video of him flashing guns and making death threats went viral to Gruden suing the NFL to Nate Hobbs’ DUI arrest.
Not if the franchise motto is “Just win, baby,” right?
“He’s been the same person the whole time, just been weathering adversity year after year, week after week,” tight end Darren Waller said of Carr. “The results may not always have looked the way people have wanted them to, but Derek’s remained the same person and improved as a leader, improved as a player. And now, the results are in our favor. But Derek’s been the same general, the same leader that he’s been his entire career.
“His hair is longer, for sure, but it’s still the same guy.”
Ah, yes, the hair. Carr said he has not had it cut since training camp, the result of a still-standing bet with Pro Bowl punter AJ Cole.
“This is honestly just because he said I’ll give up,” Carr said. “I think this is a perfect segue … we didn’t give up this season. Just because he told me I’d quit is the only reason my hair hasn’t been cut since training camp. If that tells you a little bit about me and how I feel — we didn’t quit.
“Lord knows there’s been many of times I’ve gone home after talking to you all, and your human emotions are just like ‘Why do I even do this?’ And you instantly remind yourself of the reasons why you do it. … I’ve been waiting for eight years to make the playoffs.”