Derek Carr: Lies, Damned Lies and Penalties

In the summer of 2016, I wrote about Derek Carr: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics as a critique of the hype he was receiving after two seasons in the league. Reading it back now, I think I made plenty of fair and valid points about his play and tempering expectations to that point.

In a world of reboots and sequels, this is sort of another one, though with a budget cut on the most precious thing to us all: time. For now, I’m not willing to write 5,000+ words to recap Carr’s whole career since 2016. Like I always say, people tend to just not care that much about the ~14th-best quarterback in the NFL.

I want to elaborate on something I said about Carr when I ranked him as my No. 42 quarterback of the 21st century. Specifically, this paragraph and the part in bold:

“Carr has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (21) in a quarterback’s first seven years in NFL history. That list is usually dominated by Hall of Famers, but here is Carr, who also shares the record for the most through a player’s first three, four, five, and six seasons too. He is 24-29 (.453) at game-winning drive opportunities, the 10th-best record among active starters. I’ve always said that if you can keep the game close, Carr is surprisingly good in these moments. I’ve also pointed out that he gets a lot of bogus penalties to help these winning drives, but so be it. He still comes through more than you’d expect and that is a good thing.”

As evident again last night against the Ravens, Carr came through in a spot you would not have expected him to, especially if you saw how poor his accuracy and tunnel vision for Darren Waller were early in the game. But he overcame an interception at the goal line in overtime to lead his 25th game-winning drive and inch closer to having the most fourth-quarter comeback wins in a player’s first eight seasons.

But the line that drew attention here was that I said Carr gets a lot of bogus penalties to help his winning drives. That did not happen last night for a change, but in covering his whole career, I have seen it enough times with Carr to where I think it’s fair to label him as the “guy who needs ref help” to help explain why he is so successful in game-winning drives while his overall success in the NFL is not good. He has been to the playoffs once in seven seasons and he wasn’t even healthy enough to start in January that year.

Maybe “bogus” was not the best word, though some of these calls were flat out bogus. It’s more that I see Carr as someone who has needed the help of referees to get drive-extending first downs via penalty after he failed on a throw, especially on third and fourth down, in the final minutes of the game. Like, why can’t Carr just have more successful drives in crunch time where the refs didn’t get involved? Is that too much to ask for?

A search from Stathead sure seems to quantify that Carr is involved in more of these penalty plays on crucial downs in 4QC/GWD attempts than anyone during his career (since 2014):

I went through his 25 game-winning drives again, scanning for penalties to point out why I said what I did. In six of the first eight, I found something, which is why I attached that label to him so early in his career. In the end, nearly half of the 25 led me to find something and I am presenting each one below. While I wouldn’t mind going back and watching these plays again to see if they were bogus or legit calls, I want everyone to know that NFL Game Pass is a fucking disaster, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m pasting in what I wrote about these plays in my weekly recaps when they happened. For eight seasons (2011-18) I used to write a weekly recap of every close game in the NFL to preserve a historical record of blame and credit, and I’ll be damned if I don’t put it to use here.

1. 2014 Chiefs

Everyone remembers their first. I’m going to paste in the key part of the drives from the official NFL play-by-play.

What I wrote in 2014: “Carr flirted with disaster on the drive when Husain Abdullah dropped an interception with 3:44 left. Later on a third-and-9, Carr was very fortunate to get a pass interference flag on Ron Parker. That would have been a good no-call play.”

2. 2015 Ravens

What I wrote in 2015: “Carr had 2:10 left from his 20, only needing a field goal. He engineered a nice drive into the red zone, but appeared to throw the game away with another interception to Hill, who nearly went from hero to goat by fumbling the pick, but it was all moot. Hill was rightfully penalized for defensive holding for contact beyond five yards and the Raiders had another life. On the very next play Seth Roberts ran a pretty simple route and was wide open for the 12-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left. Kyle Arrington was just left watching on the play.”

We’ll consider this one legit.

3. 2015 Titans

What I wrote in 2015: “[Carr] had a good drive going from his own 10, but soon forced a deep ball into double coverage on fourth-and-8 to Andre Holmes. That too was bailed out with a tacky 5-yard defensive holding penalty away from the throw.”

4. 2015 Chargers

What I wrote in 2015: “In overtime, Oakland won the toss and received, but there was no reason to have faith in an offense that netted 21 yards on its previous nine possessions combined. But there was not much reason to have faith in the defense either. This drive, one of the season’s ugliest to win a game, nearly self-destructed quickly with holding penalties, but the Raiders overcame a second-and-29 thanks to a penalty for this good-looking hit by rookie Denzel Perryman.

Oh, I guess the sound of a hard hit is worth a flag these days. Where exactly is football heading if this is considered an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver? Oakland kept driving, reaching the 10-yard line after Roberts caught a tipped ball for a 33-yard gain.”

Pretty nice to not have to convert a 3rd-and-21 deep in your own territory in overtime.

5. 2016 Saints

What I wrote in 2016: “On fourth-and-5 at the Saints’ 18, Derek Carr’s late floater to Richard sailed out of bounds, but Craig Robertson was penalized for pass interference. I think the Saints were hosed here. An exact definition of an “uncatchable” pass is conspicuously missing from the NFL’s rule book, but that judgment call should have been applied here, negating any contact by the defender that would have normally been illegal if the pass was catchable. It would have taken an act of God for Richard to catch that pass. Oakland was rewarded for a bad throw, and while this was not a definite game-ender given the Raiders’ three timeouts, it is troublesome that the official’s judgment was so poor on such an important play.”

This is maybe the most egregious example of them all, and a good play to illustrate why “uncatchable” needs to be better defined in the rule book.

6. 2016 Buccaneers

What I wrote in 2016: “But for all of Oakland’s record-setting penalties, one call on Tampa Bay may have been the costliest of them all. Down 24-17, Oakland faced a fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 5 with 1:49 left. Carr badly missed Crabtree in the end zone, but Adjei-Barimah was flagged for a pretty soft holding penalty that was inconsequential to the play. That helped Oakland tie the game, and Tampa Bay’s offense went three-and-out three times the rest of the way. Overtime may have been a pipe dream if that was a turnover on downs instead.

The Raiders have been living on the edge like that all season, including a controversial fourth-down penalty for pass interference in New Orleans in Week 1, and a near interception by Baltimore’s Eric Weddle before Carr threw a game-winning touchdown pass in Week 4.”

Another weak one here. Plus, you can see with the way the season started in New Orleans, and the close call in Baltimore, how I started to put together the narrative that Carr is getting bailed out. But there wouldn’t be another game like this until a doozy in the 2017 season.

7. 2017 Chiefs

It’s The Untimed Downs Game. Yes, plural.

What I wrote in 2017: “The Raiders had 8 seconds left, and appeared to win the game again with a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, but the arm extension to push Peters away was too obvious to not draw an offensive pass interference penalty. Oakland already got away with the Cooper play early, so that would have been tough for the referees to allow a second play like that. Also, offensive pass interference is apparently a type of penalty that does not require a 10-second runoff in this situation, or else the game would have been decided again.

Three seconds remained with the ball at the 10. The Chiefs only rushed three with a quarterback spy in case Carr took off, but that passive approach didn’t really work out. The pass was a little high and clanked off of Cook’s hands in the end zone. However, Rob Parker was penalized for defensive holding to extend the game to an untimed down.

To me, that looks like a common play of two guys competing and I would not have thrown a flag there. Parker is still holding after the 5-yard zone, but Cook is also using his bigger frame and right arm to drive Parker back and get open. This call has really been lost in the madness of the overall finish, but to me, that would have been game over right there.

But there was an untimed down, and it just so happened to draw another Kansas City penalty. This one was much more legit for holding on Murray covering Cordarrelle Patterson in the end zone. That led to the ball moving to the 2-yard line with a second untimed down. On a sprint-left option, Carr was licking his chops as he threw to Crabtree in the end zone for a score that was finally legit and penalty free. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio has had a rough go of it as of late, including two missed field goals in this game, but he barely snuck in the game-winning extra point to give Oakland the 31-30 win.”

How many more chances can you get to win a game? This one stung.

8. 2018 Browns

I had nothing to say about this call on the game-tying drive, but I did bring up the refs in this one.

What I wrote in 2018: “There were two big officiating controversies in the fourth quarter that both went in Oakland’s favor. First, Derek Carr coughed up the ball on a sack that could have been returned for a touchdown with just over 6:30 left, but an official quickly blew the play dead with no turnover. This play wasn’t really that huge since Cleveland ended up getting a touchdown two minutes later. Later, Carlos Hyde appeared to ice the game with a 2-yard run on third-and-2, but replay called him short even though there didn’t appear to be any conclusive evidence of that, and replay has been often sticking with the call on the field. Some have criticized Jackson for not trying a fourth-and-1 at his own 18 to end the game, but punting actually feels like the right call in this case. Getting a better punt outcome than putting Carr at his own 47 with 1:28 left would have been ideal.”

9. 2019 Bears

I never wrote about this game, but Carr’s game-winning drive was rescued after a rare running into the punter penalty and a fake punt deep in their own end.

10. 2020 Panthers

Never wrote about this one either, but that’s another fourth-and-8 in no man’s land avoided thanks to a penalty and automatic first down.

11. 2020 Jets

This was not the game-winning drive as we know Gregg Williams’ pathetic defensive call is what led to Carr’s game-winning touchdown bomb to Henry Ruggs. But I thought it was worth highlighting how Carr once again had multiple incomplete passes on third and fourth down negated by penalty on the defense. He also had a touchdown taken away on offsetting penalties, getting to replay the down.

So, that is the background on why I say what I do with Carr and penalties. It comes up too often with him for me not to notice and acknowledge.

Patrick Mahomes, Carr’s division rival, just had his ninth game-winning drive on Sunday. I looked at his nine games and outside of some defensive offsides penalties that Mahomes draws so well, the only real notable penalty on a throw was a DPI on 3rd-and-10 three plays after Wasp in the Super Bowl comeback against San Francisco. That put the ball at the 1-yard line, but it was the right call as the defender jumped into Travis Kelce and never played the ball. On the actual game-winning drive, there were no penalties as Mahomes marched down the field, just like he did against the Raiders and Falcons last year and the Browns on Sunday.

Updated thru Week 1, 2021

Carr remains a tricky one. He’s like the AFC version of Matthew Stafford, though he actually has a few notable wins under his belt. If he found a way to be more aggressive at the start of games and begin them the way he can finish them, then I think the Raiders would be more successful. Until then, I’m not scared of betting against Carr, unless the game is close and he has the ball. Even then, I’m most worried of the ref having an itchy trigger finger.

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