Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 | 9 a.m.
The first question Raiders coach Jon Gruden fielded about a player during his first training camp news conference regarded one who might not play a meaningful snap this season.
The frequency of such inquiries has yet to die down more than a month later. Marcus Mariota might be the Raiders’ hottest topic as they head into their first season in Las Vegas, adding credence to the old adage that the most popular player on the roster is always the backup quarterback.
Media and fans can’t help but be drawn to a quarterback controversy, even when there isn’t one. And, as anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to the Raiders’ offseason knows, there isn’t one in Las Vegas.
If the Raiders’ shortened training camp put anything into focus, it’s how far ahead incumbent starter Derek Carr is of Mariota. Carr had the crisper throws, the more commanding presence and even the quicker feet.
Mariota, always decked out in his trademark full long sleeves despite 100-degree temperatures, had his moments in the early-morning practices at Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center in Henderson before missing the final three sessions with an undisclosed injury. The Raiders added Mariota to injured reserve ahead of their Week 1 game at Carolina, but it’s expected to be a short stay—as few as three weeks—and could explain some of his training-camp struggles.
Even when Mariota was presumably healthy at the beginning of the summer, however, his best moments were always fleeting — a completed downfield bomb here, a sharp decision to improvise amid a collapsing pocket there. There were just as many gaffes, from wobbly spirals to miscommunications with receivers. And such mistakes couldn’t help but stand out next to Carr, who was consistently excellent. The 29-year-old Carr appears to have leveled up from 2019, when he quietly put together a career year.
In his sixth NFL season, Carr ranked ninth in the NFL with 7.9 yards per pass attempt and 10th in quarterback rating with 4,054 yards and 21 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He was the single biggest reason the Raiders threatened to make the playoffs in their final season in Oakland instead of dropping to the bottom of the NFL standings.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel benched the 26-year-old Mariota after a disappointing start to the season, while the team reached the AFC Championship Game behind replacement Ryan Tannehill.
Quarterbacks signed to be franchise players—a group to which Carr belongs as he enters year three of a five-year, $125 million contract extension—simply don’t get replaced coming off the type of season Carr put together. And yet many continue to call for, or at least speculate on, Mariota’s eventual takeover.
In fairness, the Raiders set themselves up for some of the commotion by making Mariota one of the five highest-paid backups in the NFL with a two-year, $17.6 million deal this offseason. Even if general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden weren’t looking at Mariota as a starter, they had to know others would.
Despite the conflicting professional fortunes of the two quarterbacks, there’s still an argument to be made that Mariota’s a bigger star than Carr. He set collegiate records en route to winning the Heisman Trophy at Oregon and going second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, when many argued he should have been the top overall pick.
Carr, meanwhile, produced at a high level but in relative obscurity at Fresno State before the Raiders selected him with the 36th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, a slot many characterized as a reach.
He’s done nothing but prove his critics wrong ever since, winning the starting job as a rookie and leading the Raiders to their first playoff appearance in 13 years in his third season. Carr got hurt at the end of that season and was unable to play in a 2016 wild-card round loss to the Houston Texans, but getting there remains the positive for which he’s most known in the NFL.
“I’m tired of the hype machine that sometimes the NFL can be,” Carr says. “I played way better last year than I did in 2016, yet all we talk about is that. Well, we won 12 games, so yay, everyone’s excited. I’m done with all that stuff. … I just don’t care anymore.”
Except Carr does care; he cares deeply, and therein may lie the problem as far as outside perception is concerned. The romanticized attitude of the modern NFL quarterback is a steely faced competitor unbothered by criticism, a player who’s fiery on the field and vanilla in the media room.
That’s not Carr. That’s evident every time he does something like rail against being “disrespected” or challenge ESPN talk show hosts to a mixed martial arts fight because he doesn’t like their opinions. Such outbursts, though usually minimal in nature, make Carr easy to antagonize. And despite his personal success, his overall record as the Raiders’ starter still stands at a mediocre 39-55.
Quarterbacks are more responsible for a team’s wins and losses than any other position, but Carr has still played well enough to merit a better record. With the Raiders upgraded around the rest of the roster—especially in the offensive skill position—it’s on Carr to make sure he boosts the figure this season.
If he doesn’t and can’t match last year’s progress, the Raiders might be tempted to move on from him next season or even as this year winds down if they fall out of contention. Surely that was part of the reason for bringing in Mariota, as an insurance policy in case Carr suffers an injury or succumbs to general ineffectiveness. The truth, however, is that Carr has been plenty effective behind center.
Training camp left no reason to think he’ll be taking steps back this season. And it left no reason to think anyone on the roster other than Carr gives the Raiders the best chance to win.