NAPA – Derek Carr has done everything possible to be the perfect face of this Raiders franchise. The team’s unquestioned starting quarterback says the right things, acts the right way. He’s never, ever critical, toeing the company line. He smiles for every picture and signs every autograph.
He is, by every measure, a model NFL citizen.
That hasn’t stopped some from hating him. That’s a hard truth for an admitted people pleaser, who has tried and tried to turn the naysayers around. Resistance, it seems, is futile.
“I have tried so hard. I feel like I have tried to do this whole NFL quarterback thing right,” Carr said last week in a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports California. “It’s not an act. It’s just who I am. I thought that’s what people would want. What I’ve realized is that you can’t please everybody. That has been hard for me. That’s really hard for me, to be honest with you.”
No quarterback’s approval rating sits at 100. Some casual fans and hot-take analysts even dislike guys with several Super Bowl rings. Those without the hardware prove far easier targets, especially after signing nine-figure contracts.
That’s why Derek Carr often echoes this mantra: “Ignore the praise and the criticism, because neither matter.”
It turns out that’s easier said than done. Carr heard outside noise a little clearer this offseason, elevating from "barely audible" to the annoying buzz of a gnat that you swat and swat but can’t shoo away.
That led to an experience that hardened Carr’s outlook and outfitted him for training camp in new, diamond-plated armor -- coated in Teflon.
“What I’ve realized is all that talk, all that is said doesn’t matter,” Carr said. “Honestly, that clicked for me. That click happened this offseason.”
Jan. 23 to be specific. That’s when Carr fired back at ESPN’s “First Take,” challenging the show’s hosts Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith to a UFC fight.
Kellerman essentially questioned Carr’s heart -- characterizing him as too willing to tap out. Carr can handle it if someone attacks his 32-46 overall record as a starter, his injury troubles or even his throw selections. But going after his drive to play the game and his toughness was a personal affront that garnered a response.
It was a misstep that gave the Kellerman's comments a larger platform and turned a one-off segment into a several-day story. It prompted one blog after another to detail every part of the exchange, giving the story legs that ran right through the mud.
The unsavory experience taught him a valuable lesson -- one that forced him to go somewhat against his personality type.
He’s working through this training camp with outside-noise canceling headphones and an unshakable core belief that he’s a darn good quarterback. He is supremely confident in his ability, his upgraded supporting cast and his scheme knowledge working with head coach Jon Gruden.
Nothing said will shake that.
“I’ve really grown a lot in not caring what anyone else thinks,” Carr said. “For so long, I wanted to please everybody. That’s my personality. I came into this NFL experience with several goals. I was going to work my tail off and treat the media with respect. I’m going to treat my opponents with the same kind of respect. I’m going to try and do everything right. Somewhere along that course, some people decided that they don’t like me. That was hard for me, because I was trying to do my best and produce and do things that haven’t been done here in a long time. You sit back after all that and understand fully that it’s all about winning.”
Carr hasn’t won enough. He won’t excuse his record, but let’s be honest. The man has weathered some storms.
Head coach Dennis Allen got fired four games into Carr’s rookie year. Tony Sparano never had his interim tag removed. The Raiders rebuilt into a highly competitive team under Jack Del Rio, but Carr’s third head coach wasn’t allowed to rebound after 2017’s disappointment.
Then came Gruden -- owner Mark Davis’ dream hire -- finally offering the schematic and coaching stability Carr hasn’t had during his NFL career.
Continuity didn’t create calm seas. Stories about Gruden and Carr being oil and water popped up before the two began working together, and grew louder this spring as the Raiders wined and dined top NFL-draft-eligible quarterbacks.
Carr remained silent during all that pre-draft speculation, trusting what Gruden said about him remaining the Raiders quarterback. He places great trust in Gruden and has enjoyed working with him and within his offensive scheme.
“I don’t know why people come at our relationship so much,” Carr said. “What people don’t know is that we’re super close. We’re going to live next to each other (in Nevada next year). There must be something going on that’s all right. For us, at first when we started hearing it, we couldn’t figure it out ... We finally got to a place where, even if they don’t like us, let’s keep growing and keeping doing our thing.”
Carr believes that Gruden elevated his game last year, 4-12 record be damned. Carr set career marks in passing yards and yards per attempt, despite being frequently chided as a check-down artist. His interception percentage was only lower in 2016 -- when the Raiders were awesome and he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Those 2018 numbers are more impressive coming with an offensive line hindered by injuries and inexperience and a group of skill players lacking speed.
Carr did what was asked of him last season, but the 4-12 record is what gets remembered. So do some unflattering moments, including a fourth-down-and-forever check down and a few ill-timed interceptions in the end zone.
He understands and respects that, knowing he must win more and more often, but doesn’t believe the year’s experience should be cast aside or cement anyone’s belief he isn’t a quality NFL signal-caller.
“Last year was some of the best I’ve played quarterback since I’ve been in the NFL, but we didn’t win 12 games,” he said. “When you’re the same face for the last six years and everyone else is gone, people don’t have anyone else to point at. They think, ‘it’s got to be that guy.’ He’s the constant. I was also the constant when we were winning, but that’s being quarterback in the NFL. You get a lot of blame. You get a lot of credit. It’s part of the deal.
“For me, I know who I am. My coaches know what I can do. My teammates know what I can do. If they believe in me, then let’s roll.”
Carr is ready to roll into the regular season with Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and Darren Waller in the pattern, Josh Jacobs in the backfield and Trent Brown and Kolton Miller protecting his flank.
Those weapons and another year in Gruden's scheme has Carr believing a monster year is on the way.
“I haven’t played as good a football as I have in this training camp and this offseason,” Carr said. “I’m the best version of myself right now. Some of the best football I ever played was last year, and I feel like I’m just going up.
“When Coach Gruden got here, it was a fresh restart. He told me, ‘you’re a rookie again. Let’s build this thing.’ He said, ‘it may be tough at first, but let’s grow this thing.’ We get to this year and we’re ready to do it now.”
Carr will tune out the adulation that would come with a return to glory, now knowing how the milk can turn sour with a few poor results.
While Carr’s exterior has hardened, he’s still the same guy at his core, willing to offer kindness to strangers.
That was clear after Saturday’s practice, while spending a rare camp moment with his family.
Travis Raefield, a Concord resident with Down syndrome wanted to meet his favorite Raider and was introduced to Carr. Raefield showed off his Special Olympics jersey with the No. 4 in honor of Carr, and got an autograph and an extended conversation with his idol.
This wasn’t a scheduled photo opp. “Hard Knocks” cameras were nowhere near the exchange. It was just a genuine human moment that made Raefield’s month and reminded Carr why he’ll never close himself off to the fan base just to avoid a vocal few.
“I’ve never been out (in public) and run into someone who criticizes me,” Carr said. “Everywhere I go, at a game or a practice or wherever, everyone loves our team and supports me. I haven’t run into a Raider fan where it’s the other. I’m sure there are a few people out there who aren’t fans of mine. But the support I get from Raiders fans is so positive. They say, ‘thanks for doing it right.’ Those moments confirm, ‘just continue to be yourself.’”