Inside the Raiders: How Mariota’s performance affects Carr and the future of the franchise

The Raiders are back there they started when the season began. They’ve got two quarterbacks and they’re not going to the playoffs. The Raiders gave up 30 points, and they scored 27, which holds steady to their numbers through a 2020 season where their best hope is to incrementally improve a game or two from 7-9. Which came one year after 4-12.
Some things to keep in mind as the season and offseason play out with both Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota under contract in the wake of Thursday night’s overtime loss at Allegiant Stadium:
Beware of recency bias
Mariota was better than anyone could have imagined. Darren Waller said he wasn’t surprised, but I’m guessing Jon Gruden was floored in a good way.
This was the two-way Mariota who won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon. The cool leader who seemed unaffected by pressure and attention. The player Gruden had in his strip mall offices in Florida for his televised quarterback camp and the man general manager Mike Mayock believed was a viable option if Carr was hurt or couldn’t deliver the goods.
Plumb the depths of social media and there’s the thought Mariota may as well finish out the season regardless of whether Carr is recovered from a groin strain before the Raiders play again on Dec. 26 against Miami.
Not so fast.
What Mariota did with almost zero practice time exceeded expectations. It was also a shock to the Chargers, who had prepared for a more meticulous Carr approach.
“That was hard because he is a dual threat, and we knew he could beat us with his legs,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He’ll make you play 11-on-11. And when you are in training, practicing with that all week on a short week, that was a little bit of a surprise for us. I thought our defense made the adjustments to hang in there, and that slowed them down just enough.”
Mariota completed 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards and rushed for 88 yards on nine carries against a team that came in with a 4-9 record. It doesn’t compare with taking down the New Orleans Saints or the Kansas City Chiefs or the body of work Carr has this season to score the same number of points per game Mariota produced in one memorable night.
Even Mariota conceded afterward the job belongs to Carr, assuming he’s healthy. Rest assured Carr will do everything in his power to get back on the field. The whole “best ability is availability” slogan was written with Carr in mind. He’s played with a broken pinky finger on his throwing hand and and the only time he ever missed games was because of a broken leg and a broken back. With those injuries, Carr, in his seventh season, has missed two regular season games.
The Raiders have two commodities
Only Gruden knows what he wants, and he probably hasn’t figured it out yet. As painful as losing to the Chargers was, a part of him enjoyed showing he was perfectly capable of running an offense with a mobile quarterback with all the new-fangled run-pass options.
Having Mariota enabled the Raiders to move the ball on the ground with the quarterback when their running game has gone stagnant, which is no small thing. Thanks to Mariota, the Raiders rushed for 173 yards.
But here’s the deal: NFL teams are desperate for quarterbacks. The Raiders need players desperately on defense, whether through free agency or the draft. Just because they haven’t been good at it doesn’t mean they stop trying.
Derek Carr talks with the training staff after a groin injury late in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers. A.P. Photo
Carr is due $19.5 million in 2021 and $19.7 million in 2022. If Carr were to be traded, the Raiders would save $17 million or so against the salary cap in a year that’s supposed to be snug because of income losses due to the pandemic.
Mariota, by virtue of the two-year, $17.6 million contract that went from laughingstock to reasonable in a single night, is scheduled to make $10 million.
For a quarterback with Carr’s experience and numbers, his salary is reasonable. And who’s to say a team wouldn’t look at what Mariota did last night and think he could be a $10 million bridge to their next quarterback?
In a salary cap sense, it may not make sense to bring both back, not if it brings in draft capital or clears space for a big-ticket free agent that hopefully amounts to more than what they’ve gotten out of this year’s crop.
Neither Carr nor Mariota is the ‘future’
Carr is 29, Mariota is 27. Both in theory should be in the prime of their careers.
But Carr has played a lot of football and Mariota was so beat up when he arrived that it took him until December to be ready to play.
Gruden is accused every year of coveting something different at quarterback, a knee-jerk reaction that flies in the face of the way he’s operated with both the Raiders and Buccaneers.
But at some point he Gruden needs a young buck to take over if Carr’s health has hit its expiration date or Mariota’s pass-run tendencies too often put him in harm’s way. After all, they’re in the same division as Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.
He can’t do that with both on the roster.
The preferred roster makeup would have an established starter and a younger quarterback that could master Gruden’s system well enough to challenge by his second season. He’s never started a rookie quarterback from the outset before and there’s no reason to think he will now.
It’s Gruden’s call
If the bloom was already off the rose regarding Gruden’s return in 2018, it’s a withered stem among much of the fan base at this point. But whether Raider Nation likes it or not, Gruden is their guy for the foreseeable future and he’ll pick the quarterback. Mayock has plenty of opinions and he’s not shy about voicing them, but particularly where quarterback is concerned, his job is one of facilitation.
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As much as Gruden may have enjoyed adjusting his offense on the fly for a quarterback who can really run, his preference is to not expose that position to the kind of punishment such a player would take over the course of a season. He wants running backs to do the running if at all possible, and a quarterback who can move the chains and complete passes, creating something only when plays break down.
The better passer in that regard is Carr. Mariota’s passing in a surprise performance was very good, although things started to get away from him later in the game.
If Carr is unable to go, Gruden will get to accumulate more information as to his quarterback in 2021 as the painfully slow process of restoring the franchise to postseason status continues.

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