Raiders

Why Raiders QB Derek Carr should be primed for huge 2019 NFL season

Why Raiders QB Derek Carr should be primed for huge 2019 NFL season

Derek Carr reports Tuesday for his sixth Raiders training camp, his fifth as an unquestioned starter. He snatched the top job as a rookie second-round pick and never let go, weathering an early rebuild that produced an all-too-short-lived competitive renaissance and a lucrative contract.

The Raiders dipped yet again, with Carr drawing ire intensified by a then-record $125 million deal that seems pedestrian by today’s standards. A legitimate MVP candidate back in 2016 is now subject to regular slings and arrows for a downturn that completely isn’t his fault.

Carr’s partly culpable for a 10-22 record since 2016. Stats are nice, but franchise quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses.

He obviously played a role in offensive struggles, but there are mitigating factors here that can’t be ignored. Carr can’t protect himself. He didn’t cycle through offensive play callers, skill players and head coaches. He didn’t trade Khalil Mack or embark on another roster rebuild. He showed up and worked and said the right things and tried to adapt to difficult circumstances.

Mention those points and you’re an apologist.

Hammering well-worn criticisms is easy and more accepted, but saying that he’s at-times skittish, too sensitive, can’t handle head coach/play caller Jon Gruden means you’ve just joined the chorus.

Uneven stat lines foster debate, providing fodder for both sides of the Carr aisle.

Let’s paint a fuller picture here, of a cannon-armed quarterback dealt some crappy hands who has also fallen below lofty, yet realistic expectations in recent seasons.

Carr can make every throw. He’s smart and sneaky fast. The bar is and should be high. After all, that’s where he sets it.

Carr flew under it last season, but was under constant duress last season playing with two rookie offensive tackles. He had no one to throw to last season save Jared Cook. Despite all the tongue-in-cheek rhetoric last summer about Carr knowing Gruden’s system better than its creator, the quarterback was transitioning between systems.

All that and he still set career marks in completion percentage, total yards and -- this won’t fit the popular narrative -- yards per attempt despite being sacked and pressured more than ever.

That’s well and good, but you just can’t throw it away on a last-ditch fourth down to secure defeat, even if the play was never going to work. You can’t throw picks in the end zone, especially late in games. Even 16 career fourth-quarter comebacks won’t excuse that.

Carr’s performance is a polarizing, easily argued topic that depends on perspective and willingness to accept context.

This season should provide a clearer, more objective look at the quarterback.

Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock stacked the skill positions and spent heavily to secure the offensive line.

When Carr thrives well protected and feels safe in the pocket. Having Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams are excellent at creating separation and winning receptions in the air. Having them in the pattern should provide confidence making riskier decisions. Josh Jacobs and the running game should provide balance.

A second straight year with the same play-caller in the same offensive system, a luxury Carr has experienced just once before as a pro, should also provide great benefit.

Carr still can’t play defense, so he can’t completely control outcomes, but he’s in solid position to have an excellent year and find 2016 form, when he ranked among the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

[RELATED: Five bold predictions for upcoming Raiders season]

The football smarts and arm talent remain. The supporting cast is back, possibly better than ever. The situation seems ripe for a monster season and a resurgence that could quiet some critics and noise about Gruden looking harder at alternatives as Carr’s contract becomes easier to escape.

Sailing on the calm would be welcome after a few tumultuous seasons, but that privilege must be earned with on-field excellence.

Entering his sixth season with quality around him, Carr’s in prime position to do exactly that.

NFL rumors: Raiders rookie Josh Jacobs expected to play vs. Jaguars

NFL rumors: Raiders rookie Josh Jacobs expected to play vs. Jaguars

The Raiders should receive a big boost this Sunday when they suit up for their final game in Oakland. 

NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday morning that Raiders' rookie running back Josh Jacobs is expected to return against the Jaguars after missing last week's loss to the Titans with a shoulder injury. 

Jacobs made an impassioned plea to play against Tennessee and teared up when he learned the Raiders wouldn't let him go. He even took a painkilling injection to prepare for play, but the medical staff ruled the rookie out. 

Coach Jon Gruden hinted Monday that Jacobs could return this week after missing just one game. 

“We’re never going to put a guy out there that can’t play, but we’re going into the last game in the history of the Oakland Raiders and it’s an emotional time," Gruden told reporters. "We’re going to try to win the game. We’re not eliminated from the playoffs and we’re going to try to win every single time we strap it on.”

[RELATED: Sunday marks end of an era for longtime Black Hole residents]

Jacobs, the No. 24 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, has been a star as a rookie this season. He became the first rookie in Raiders history to rush for at least 1,000 yards, and is up to 1,061 on 218 carries. The 21-year-old is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, 88.4 yards rushing per game and has scored seven touchdowns. 

Despite missing last Sunday's game, Jacobs still ranks sixth among the NFL's rushing leaders -- just 10 yards behind Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott.

Why jumping into Black Hole is so unforgettable for Raiders players

Why jumping into Black Hole is so unforgettable for Raiders players

Raiders running back Jalen Richard drifted into the left flat and caught a screen pass from quarterback Derek Carr a few yards from pay dirt. Three receivers were engaged and blocking well before him, allowing Richard to squiggle through traffic and into Oakland Coliseum’s southern end zone.

It was a big moment for the 2016 Raiders, looking to enhance playoff positioning with a Week 16 home win over Indianapolis. It was a big moment for Richard, an undrafted rookie who found himself a major contributor in a playoff push. He didn’t stop to celebrate with his teammates. No way, not after his first touchdown in the East Bay.

There was tradition to uphold. Richard made a beeline for the Black Hole.

“It was definitely planned,” Richard said. “I thought they looked like they were turnt up. Everybody was faded and having a blast. I knew I had to do it.”

It’s a rite of passage for Raiders skill players fortunate enough to score near a notoriously rabid fan section.

“Sometimes I plan on it, and other times it just happens,” Raiders running back DeAndre Washington said. “Once you get in the end zone, your adrenaline is going and you’ve got 60,000 people screaming for you to come get that love. They always embrace you. It’s one hell of a feeling. I would advise anybody who scores to try it at least once."

Jumping into the Black Hole isn’t new. Running back Napoleon Kaufman was first to do it in the mid-1990s -- the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995 -- as the Black Hole was established and growing in size and notoriety.

The tradition grew from there and has become commonplace when the Raiders break into the southern end zone. There’s one more guaranteed chance to do so Sunday against Jacksonville, the final Raiders game at Oakland Coliseum and maybe the Black Hole's last hurrah.

It’s not just rushers and receivers who can get in on the act.

Quarterback Jeff George took the leap in 1997. Edge rusher Khalil Mack and linebacker Sio Moore have partied in the crowd. Even 340-pound left tackle Donald Penn jumped into the Black Hole after scoring a big-man touchdown.

Former All-Pro fullback Marcel Reece never missed a chance to party with the fans who unwaveringly supported the Raiders during some lean years.

“Jumping in the Black Hole and celebrating with those fans, those loyalists, those people who bleed silver and black just like you do, it’s like being at Thanksgiving dinner with your family,” Reece said. “It’s that feeling where, no matter what else is going on, nothing else matters but that moment right there.

"The fact that you scored and gave them a reason to cheer is a feeling that’s like nothing else.”

There is some technique to it. You need a head of steam and decent hops to get over the stadium wall and into the crowd. It’s decently low, but folks have tried to get into the Black Hole and missed. It’s also important to jump up, turn around and go in backwards. The leap of faith will be rewarded by fans ready to catch you.

“You need a little bounce or you’ll get embarrassed,” Raiders running back DeAndre Washington said. “I’ve seen a few guys miss the leap, so you’ve got to be ready to get vertical. Even if you don’t make it, the fans will pull you up. You might get a little beer on you, but that’s part of the experience.”

There’s another aspect of the experience first-timers don’t expect. Getting in is easy. Getting out is another matter.

“Sometimes they don’t like to let you go,” Washington said. “And, if you get in there with the ball, it’s going to be a fight for sure. You have to protect it like you were still running.”

[RELATED: Sunday marks end of an era for longtime Black Hole residents]

The experience doesn’t last long. Teammates come running up quick, with offensive linemen ready to pull scorers out of the abyss. Beer stains come with it, but it’s a unique part of the Raiders playing experience.

“It’s like you’re a part of the Black Hole for a split second,” Richard said. “You jump up there and you just feed off of their energy. It’s pretty awesome.”