Maybe Jack Del Rio just had a feeling. Perhaps the Raiders head coach loved the play call that much and had been saving it for a do-or-die moment like he saw on Sunday, trailing by one late in the fourth quarter after his team had just scored a touchdown.
When a man on the sidelines lays it all on the line with a decision in Week 1, as Del Rio did in the 35-34 victory against the Saints, he’s living on a special kind of faith.
That faith is something neither the coach nor the franchise understood much about until they met a year ago. Oakland had been in search of a quarterback since the early 2000s with Rich Gannon, creating a drought which included colossal bust JaMarcus Russell. Not even Carson Palmer could find success. Del Rio had been on the hunt even longer until the Jaguars told him to stop looking by firing him in 2011.
They have it now in Derek Carr. He’s the ray of light that had long been missing in the Black Hole.
Sunday was perhaps the finest moment to date of his brief NFL career, which started in 2014. It wasn’t his best performance, as he and the much-hyped Raiders offense scuffled for three quarters against a Saints defense that ranked 31st last year. In the end, he only ended up throwing one touchdown pass.
It’s how he finished that mattered, engineering his fifth comeback win in the fourth quarter since the start of last season. No other quarterback has more in that span. It was his ability to learn from a defense and to grow in an offense throughout a game. It was how he once again took a step forward for an organization that before him had been stuck in the mud.
Carr is the embodiment of quarterback development, something that long evaded Oakland and Del Rio and continues to be the biggest mystery in the NFL. He lost the first 10 starts of his career, and so the Raiders cleaned out the coaching staff but kept the general manager, Reggie McKenzie, who selected Carr. They told him to find the head man who could make this work.
He went with Del Rio, a defensive coach who prefers to run the ball and win games the old smash-mouthed way. It’s what he knew from Jacksonville, where he had three winning seasons in nine years as he rotated from Byron Leftwich to David Garrard to Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. His inability to answer the mystery got him fired, as it does so many coaches in this passing league.
In Oakland, he didn’t have to solve the puzzle. He simply had to believe. He was inheriting a second-year quarterback out of Fresno State who had just gutted through a 3-13 season with up-and-down success. Carr threw 21 touchdowns to 12 interceptions as a rookie, but he didn’t complete enough of his passes to justify his 5.5 yards per attempt. What he needed was help, both in stability and opportunity.
Del Rio and McKenzie have delivered. As the offense grew to add a go-to receiver in Amari Cooper, a sound front wall and Del Rio’s trademark running game, Carr has taken the strides organizations ask for out of young quarterbacks without giving the proper time. In his second season, a 32-touchdown, 13-interception performance that got the Raiders to 7-9, Carr expanded his field vision and began to deliver on higher-risk throws. He just played the first game of his third year, but in it, he displayed some of the poise in the face of pressure that at times eluded him last year.
Oakland’s reward for its faith is a 25-year-old quarterback who can go down two touchdowns in the second half on the road and not flinch. He’s now the kind of player you can trust to do what Del Rio did at the end. Going for two and the win late in a shootout often sounds like a great idea until it comes time to actually call it. Imagine being the coach shown on loop on SportsCenter trying to explain why he defied conventional wisdom to bet on one play where anything can happen.
After the game, ESPN Stats & Info tweeted that its win probability model had the Raiders at a 51-percent chance of winning with the extra point and only a 44-percent chance by going for two. Del Rio then fired back by tweeting, “Good thing ESPN isn’t coaching the Raiders.” It was a giddy shot after a gamble that worked. It’s also a byproduct of the confidence he’s running on in his second chance as a head coach.
Earlier in the day, he stood on the sidelines with 47 seconds left and told his young quarterback to go for the win. So they lined up in doubles, and Carr motioned for the outside receiver to his left to move to the backfield. When the cornerback followed, he could see the matchup he had: Michael Crabtree alone in 1-on-1 man coverage. It was the old jump-ball scenario, and if Carr placed it at its high point at the ideal moment in the route and Crabtree could deliver, Oakland would have a gamble to win in New Orleans.
Del Rio and his Raiders did it and celebrated wild, but the party doesn’t stop on Bourbon Street. Not now that they have a team loaded with young talent. Not after they’ve solved the riddle that had long haunted them.