Derek Carr never has been considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, mostly because the Raiders rarely were winners during his first seven seasons as the starter. But maybe that is starting to change.
Two weeks into his eighth year, Carr leads the league in passing yards, and his team is 2-0. It’s only two games and obviously no time to overreact. Still, the Raiders were underdogs in both games and were expected to be 0-2.
Of the seven teams that are 2-0, four — the Broncos, Buccaneers, 49ers and Rams — were favored in both games. Two — the Cardinals and Panthers — were favored once. Only the Raiders were dogs both times.
Are the Raiders for real? Is Carr’s hot start sustainable?
“I’m not buying it yet,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Carr just put together two of his best games ever, so can he continue to do that? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. I don’t think Jon Gruden is a good coach. The team shows a lack of discipline. I think Gruden makes a lot of mistakes, and I don’t think Carr can overcome those mistakes.”
In the fourth year of a 10-year, $100 million contract, Gruden has yet to produce a winning season in his second tour with the Raiders. He went 4-12 and 7-9 in Oakland and finished 8-8 last year, the franchise’s first in Las Vegas. To be fair, Gruden needed time to rebuild the roster, and he has a tall mountain to climb with the Chiefs being the dominant team in the AFC West.
Realistically, this is the year Gruden needs to show something, and the same is true of Carr. With a coach who’s a self-acclaimed quarterback guru, Carr always is under pressure to produce or be replaced. Offseason rumors linked the Raiders to Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, three unhappy quarterbacks who wanted trades.
In victories over the Ravens and Steelers, Carr totaled 817 passing yards — the most by a Raiders quarterback in a two-game span in franchise history — and four touchdowns while outgunning Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger in statement-making upsets.
“In the NFL, you never want to take anything for granted, but there are two big reasons why the Raiders can make a playoff run,” said VSiN’s Brent Musburger, the radio voice of the Raiders. “One, Carr is an underrated QB. Two, (new coordinator) Gus Bradley has improved the defense dramatically. Big question: Can the offensive line get out of the blue tent? Stay healthy and the playoffs are a real possibility.”
In the preseason, oddsmakers tagged the Raiders with a season win total of 7 or 7.5, and DraftKings posted Las Vegas as a 22-1 long shot in the division and a + 350 proposition to make the playoffs.
Nobody is predicting a Chiefs free fall or a Raiders rise to the top, but it’s not pure fantasy. It’s worth remembering that Carr is off a year in which he passed for 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also put the team in position to sweep Kansas City last season, passing for six touchdowns and leading the way to 71 points in a split of two meetings with Patrick Mahomes.
It’s also true the Raiders started 2-0 last year and were 7-5 before fading in December, yet the failures had a lot to do with the defense being a dumpster fire.
I’m on board with the opinion Carr is underrated and have ranked him as a fringe top-10 quarterback for several years. He has a 49-63 career record as a starter with 174 touchdowns and 72 interceptions. He has played on some bad teams, and a win-loss record is not a real quarterback stat. In 2016, he did lead the Raiders to a 12-3 mark and a playoff appearance. This is his best shot since to do it again.
Las Vegas is a 4-point home favorite against the Dolphins in Week 3, and Carr is listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Bet on him playing. Carr is durable and tough, missing only two starts in his career. A long-term injury to Carr could certainly derail the Raiders’ season.
In the NFC, two other 2-0 teams will collide in a true test of strength. The Buccaneers-Rams duel in Los Angeles is a pick-’em game. Is Matthew Stafford ready to outshoot Tom Brady? Tampa Bay boasts the league’s No. 1 scoring offense at 39.5 points per game.
The Cardinals are No. 2 in scoring offense at 36.0 behind red-hot Kyler Murray, whose seven touchdown passes rank second to Brady’s nine. Arizona is a 7-point favorite at winless Jacksonville, where new coach Urban Meyer is already a mess and rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence is barely recognizable.
“The Cardinals are in a division that’s extremely tough, but I look for that team to make the playoffs,” Avello said. “I like the quarterback. Murray is very talented, and he might be the fastest quarterback in the league.”
The NFC West features three 2-0 teams, including the 49ers, who survived a trip through Detroit and Philadelphia. San Francisco is a 4-point favorite against Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday night.
The Panthers, off a convincing victory over the Saints, are 7.5-point favorites at Houston to open Week 3 on Thursday. Carolina shows promise, with the return of running back Christian McCaffrey providing a boost to rejuvenated quarterback Sam Darnold, a Jets castoff.
“There’s going to be a surprise team during the year,” Avello said, “so why not the Panthers?”
The Panthers Over 7.5 was one of my favorite win-total bets. (The Raiders Over 7 was another.) Carolina’s schedule in September and October is about as easy as it gets.
The Broncos, who opened with road wins against the Giants and Jaguars, are 10.5-point favorites over the Jets. Denver’s soft early schedule leaves the door open for doubts.
Who’s for real? The Buccaneers, 49ers and Rams. Who’s phony? The Broncos, Cardinals, Panthers and Raiders might eventually prove to be the real deal, but all four still have a long way to go.