by Derrik Klassen
By the time Jon Gruden's Oakland Raiders showed signs of life in 2018, the season was already over. The Raiders held a 1-8 record heading into Week 11, only boasting an overtime win over a Cleveland Browns team still coached by Hue Jackson at the time. From there on out, Gruden's squad managed a 3-4 run with wins over Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Denver. While the defense was still an atrocity, the offense turned itself around, especially quarterback Derek Carr.
A study in the Cleveland Browns chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2019 disproved the notion that progress toward the end of one season will lead to success the next season, but Oakland went out of their way to ensure their offense would have the pieces to make it happen. The Raiders signed offensive linemen Trent Brown and Richie Incognito to bolster their pass protection for Carr. As for skill players to enable Carr, Oakland signed wide receiver Tyrell Williams and drafted running back Josh Jacobs and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. Even with the Antonio Brown trade blowing up in their face, the Raiders still did plenty to fill out the offensive depth chart.
Better yet, Oakland is not trying to be a team that they aren't. Through eight weeks, Carr has the fifth-lowest time to throw in the league at 2.55 seconds (per NFL Next Gen Stats) and has posted a career-low average depth of target of 6.8 yards (per AirYards). Getting the ball out quickly has always been Carr's M.O., but he and Gruden are really leaning into it this season. The initial reaction to that may be to assume all the short passing is being done to hide Carr, but there is a case to be made that the opposite is true. Gruden and Carr are leaning into the quick game because Carr excels at it in a way few other quarterbacks in the league can rival right now and Oakland's current pass-catchers, including Jacobs, are perfectly suited for it.
It's tough to parse whether it's good coaching or finally having a full offseason removed from his back injury, but Carr has been exceptionally sharp with respect to timing and mechanics in the quick game. In addition to the instant release he has always had, Carr has sped up his processing on short passes. Carr is playing as confidently as ever in identifying a key and immediately triggering on it. Whether it's throwing before a route break or throwing early to create a window between zones, it feels like Carr is always a tick faster than the defense when executing quick game concepts.
Carr knows pre-snap that Chicago's cornerback to the top of the screen is playing with a massive cushion on the receiver. With that information in mind, Carr also knows he needs to finish his drop and get rid of the ball as soon as possible before the cornerback reads and closes on the pass. Carr shaves a sliver of time off this throw by immediately transitioning the last step of his dropback into opening up for the throw. He does not waste any time confirming the coverage post-snap (because he shouldn't need to) and does not stop at the end of his dropback to reset his feet. Everything happens in one seamless action and Carr's arm starts to draw back before the receiver has hit the top of his break. Carr's combination of efficient footwork, quick throwing motion, and high-end velocity makes it almost impossible for the cornerback to close on the ball.
This time, Carr looks to be throwing based off of what linebacker Blake Martinez (50, over the center) does. Carr ultimately wants to throw the inside slant to the right side, but his footwork allows him another option beforehand if necessary. By initially opening up to his left, Carr can decide to throw the quick out to the slot receiver if Martinez drops toward the trips side. It's also possible that Carr would throw this "hot" to the quick out if Martinez were to blitz since that is the direction to which his feet would already be set. However, Carr notices Martinez drop and slide toward the left and knows there should nothing stopping him from throwing the inside slant. He transitions immediately from left to right and throws a perfect in-stride ball before any Packers defender can get in position to do anything.
Now Carr's processing has to be sped up even faster. Before the snap, Carr has a good idea that one of three players could defend the swing route: Khalil Mack (52) peeling off the edge, Eddie Jackson (39) from his box safety position, or Roquan Smith (58) from his linebacker position. Mack would present a mismatch in favor of Oakland and is unlikely to be the one to take the assignment anyway. Smith's alignment works in Oakland's favor because the swing is running to the wide side of the field. Jackson is the highest priority threat to cover the swing route well. Carr tries to get through his drop while looking down the field, but feels Jackson blitzing off the edge and instantly flips the ball over Jackson to Trevor Davis on the swing route. Carr's timely reaction and accurate pass both serve to save time that Davis can then use during his yards-after-catch opportunity.
The minutia in Carr's game, while not exciting, is an art. It's all the same things for which we applaud Tom Brady. Of course, Carr is not operating quite at Brady's standard, but he's executing in the quick game about as well as any non-Brady quarterback can. Carr's quick, fluid process and attention to detail have turned him into a machine within 10 yards.
Carr's precision in the quick game has provided Oakland's offense with a stable foundation. However, it is the developed relationship between Carr and his offensive line that has lifted the offense to previously unseen heights in the Gurden era.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Oakland's offensive line has allowed a league-low pressure rate of 19.1% this season (subscription required). Carr's bottom-quartile time to throw certainly plays a role in that low pressure rate, but it would be disingenuous to not give the offensive linemen their credit. Carr held extremely similar time to throw and average depth of target numbers last season, yet the Raiders allowed a 13th-ranked 28.3% pressure rate. That's still an impressive mark, but it's far from being the best in the league like they are now. Oakland's boys up front are doing their job and then some.
Such was the story of Carr in 2016 when he was having an MVP-caliber season (sort of). He benefited greatly from a brick wall of an offensive line that seldom allowed him to be pressured. The difference between then and now is that Carr has done more this season to return the favor to his offensive line than he did in 2016.
In both of these clips, Green Bay generates some pressure off the edge, but Carr still has room to slide up in the pocket. While the interior offensive line holds up quite well, it is still on Carr to slide past the edge rush and make use of the free space in front of him. Carr does just that in both instances, even escaping a light arm tackle in the second clip to ensure that he can throw from a semi-clean platform. Previous iterations of Carr would not have consistently made the most of pockets like these. Younger Carr either struggled to take advantage of the pocket or bailed out of it entirely, often throwing the ball away. Carr has grown to turn those net-neutral non-actions into proactive net-positive efforts.
If anything is left to be desired from a Gruden and Carr offense, it is intermediate to deep passing. The offense has been unbelievable in the quick game, but their receiving corps isn't exactly built to target deeper areas of the field all the time. Williams, one of the league's best horizontal stretches, can attack the intermediate area well, but most of Oakland's other receivers are quick-game savants or are more athlete than wide receiver. Carr has thrown quite well to the intermediate and deep portions of the field, so a potential increase in volume there would have to come down to how much Gruden trusts the receivers or trusts himself to get them open.
Hanging as the backdrop to Oakland's passing success is that they've done it all on the road. The Raiders have played five consecutive games away from Oakland, including a trip to London for their game against the Bears. Their Week 6 bye was also wedged in there after the London game and before their road trip to Green Bay. Furthermore, Oakland's schedule over the first eight weeks ranks as the third-toughest per DVOA. Their remaining schedule, on the other hand, ranks as the 26th-toughest. In just about every way imaginable, Oakland's season got a heck of a lot easier the moment they returned home from their road game in Houston.
It's fair to ask whether this Oakland passing offense is even operating at full throttle considering their schedule situation. An upcoming three-game home stretch against beatable Lions, Chargers, and Bengals squads could provide Carr and the Raiders with the spark they need to find another gear. While they would need a miracle to unseat the Chiefs at the top of the division, a wild-card bid is well within reach for the Raiders.