ALAMEDA, Calif. — Derek Carr’s comfort level in changing plays at the line of scrimmage is a part of his game that has gone largely unnoticed while the Raiders worked their way into a tie for first in the AFC West.
It’s something that Carr is doing with more frequency and with more success — like on his fourth-down touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree that put Oakland ahead to stay in its 34-31 win over the San Diego Chargers last week.
“That’s the way I love to play,” Carr said Wednesday. “I love having a lot put on my back. Any quarterback does. (Offensive coordinator Bill) Musgrave talks to me about his time with Matt Ryan, how he loved that and how we’re similar in that way. We just love that kind of stuff. I absolutely love it.”
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said it’s just part of the natural progression for his third-year quarterback, who had a tremendous first month of the season while helping guide Oakland to its best start in more than a decade.
Through five games, Carr has 11 touchdown passes with just two interceptions to go with a 102.3 rating and 66.8 completion percentage — the latter two numbers being career-highs. The former second-round draft pick has also led the Raiders on seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his brief NFL career, including twice already this season.
That’s helped propel Oakland to a 4-1 start and a share of first place in the AFC West with defending Super Bowl champion Denver.
While Carr certainly isn’t at the level of autonomy that Peyton Manning had when he called every play at the line for the Colts and Broncos, his freedom to alter the calls coming in have added another layer to Oakland’s fifth-ranked offense.
Del Rio said allowing Carr to do more was something he and his coaching staff discussed during the offseason.
“As he’s made good decisions and made accurate throws, and in those situations, we give him more leeway to do those things,” Del Rio said. “He sees it. He can understand what leverage he’s getting. We don’t have to guess from the sideline and make a call and then try to make it perfect, in terms of execution. You can see what you see and make the adjustment and make a play.”
Carr did just that in the third quarter against the Chargers after Del Rio made the decision to go for it on 4th-and-3 from San Diego’s 21-yard line rather than settle for a chip-in field goal attempt from Sebastian Janikowski.
Musgrave initially called for a passing play that had wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper running crossing patterns. Carr, noticing that Crabtree was in man-to-man coverage against Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward, switched up and audibled a fade to Crabtree.
Crabtree easily beat Hayward down the field into the end zone to make his fifth touchdown reception of the year and help give the Raiders the lead.
Carr’s teammates say it was just another example of the young quarterback’s maturity and his confidence.
“The thing is, he wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t doing the right thing,” Cooper said. “He’ll only audible if he feels like it’s the right thing to do, the right play to call. And he has the confidence in us that we’ll go up and make the play for him.”
For the most part the Raiders give Carr a handful of plays to check into if a change needs to be made at the line. At other times, the quarterback is allowed to freelance and come up with his own plays.
Most of the time the results have been good, like on the touchdown pass to Crabtree. Even then, Carr notices the coaching staff raising an eyebrow in his direction.
“As soon as the ball goes up, I laugh because I know what they were thinking, like ‘We didn’t call that,'” Carr said with a laugh. “It’s nothing outside the framework of what they want me to do or being aggressive and those kinds of things. I would never do that kind of stuff, be an insubordinate. I’m not like that.”
Notes: Austin Howard could be in line to start at right tackle. Rookie Vadal Alexander, who has started the previous two games while Menelik Watson and Howard nursed their way back from injuries, did not practice Wednesday because of a sore ankle he injured against San Diego. Watson (calf) was also held out along with running back Latavius Murray (toe).