Opinion: Once the focal point of scrutiny, Derek Carr is lifting Raiders after Jon Gruden controversy
When Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this month in October amid the scandal involving his racist, homophobic and misogynistic language in emails, the organization found itself with a leadership void.
General manager Mike Mayock increased his guidance within the front office and his communications with the coaching staff to promote stability. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia – previously the special teams coordinator – aimed to serve as a calming force for assistant coaches and players.
But as quarterback Derek Carr assessed the situation, he felt compelled to step up as well.
“When coach Gruden walked into a room, all eyes were on him, and when we lost that, someone had to fill that void,” Carr told reporters on Sunday.
Carr had already ranked among the more vocal players on the team. But the eighth-year veteran understood that now more than ever, he had to put his team on his back.
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Carr began looking for additional ways to assert himself. In some cases, it has meant taking on a larger ownership role of the offense while working closely with offensive coordinator Greg Olson. But it also has included increasing his interactions with defensive and special teams players, encouraging or admonishing wherever he sees the need.
“It's not only me,” Carr said, “but as the quarterback and a leader that's been here for a while, I've got to take that part of what I do to another level. ... I'm just trying to do everything I can to encourage, uplift and motivate our guys to keep going in every situation.”
The efforts have gone a long way toward ensuring even greater unification in a locker room that very well could have splintered amid the controversy that prompted Gruden’s exit.
But Carr and the Raiders – motivated by the outward expectation that Gruden’s departure would lead to a collapse – have anything but crumble. Las Vegas has gone 2-0 under Bisaccia, winning each game by double digits while topping the 30-point mark twice. The 34 points scored last week in the win over the Denver Broncos marked a season high, and the 11-point margin of victory in Sunday’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles represented the Raiders’ biggest point differential of the season.
Now, having improved to 5-2, the Raiders lead the AFC West, standing ahead of the Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.
And none of that would have been possible without Carr, on and off the field, Raiders players and coaches say.
Ironic that the same guy who endured yet another offseason of scrutiny about his ability to elevate the team is now left standing as the unquestioned leader.
“Derek is the voice of the Raiders right now,” Bisaccia said after Sunday’s win. “Players always want to go to him, always want to listen to him. They ask him all kinds of things. ... He's a tremendous leader both on and off the field.”
Carr’s expanded leadership role has also coincided with improved effectiveness on the field. Already off to one of the best starts of his career, Carr on Sunday completed a blistering 91% of his passes (31-for-34) for 323 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He ranks second in the league in passing yards (2,269), trailing only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Tom Brady.
Improved comfort in Year 4 of the same system has paved the way for Carr’s success, as has his strong relationship with Olson, who now has more say over the Raiders’ game plans and has taken over as the team's play-caller.
“He's in concert with (Olson) and he's so accurate,” Bisaccia said. “He can go through Wednesday and Thursday practice with literally only two or three incompletes and then he throws them again. He has tremendous command of the offense, knows where everyone is supposed to be. First one in the building, last to leave. His preparation – I've been around a lot of good quarterbacks, but his preparation is second to none, and he plays the way he prepares.”
While taking over as the new tone-setter of the Raiders, Carr has tried to impart the same mindset he adapted entering training camp. He sought to play more freely and worry less about criticisms.
“Just have fun,” Carr said he has reminded himself, writing that down as his final note of each Saturday evening meeting while underlining it and adding exclamation points. “I remind myself of that. We are preaching that: Have fun, have a blast, be free, have fun, cut it loose.”
From offense to defense to special teams, the Raiders appear equipped to weather the Gruden storm because they are buying into the messages Carr has delivered in both word and deed.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.