Follow-Up: Is Derek Carr Really the Future of the Oakland Raiders?
You Raiders fans are feisty.
On Monday, I published an article that asked whether or not Derek Carr was really the future of the Oakland Raiders. The conclusion stated that, while it's possible he pans out, the probability of him truly hitting as a top passer in the league isn't all that high.
That's because his rookie season Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) total wasn't very strong. Though he put up good raw numbers, our signature metric pegged Carr as the second-worst quarterback in the NFL last year with a -40.94 Passing NEP.
Performing poorly as a rookie isn't abnormal, but based on a study I did last year, there does seem to be a strong connection between first-year success and career-long success. Carr's Passing NEP, within the context of every rookie quarterback since the turn of the century, places him in a not-so-desirable tier of signal-callers.
Some people called me names that would make a PG movie into a PG-13 one. Others brought up valid points: Isn't Derek Carr's lack of success during his rookie year due to a situation that was arguably worse than any other one in the league? And what about other metrics? How about strength of schedule? And how could I be so ignorant to simply ignore his good touchdown-to-interception ratio?
I like football discussions, so I've decided to tackle each of these questions to give more context into why Carr may not be the savior Oakland's been waiting for.
Here goes nothing.
1. The schedule was tough.
In 2014, the Raiders faced some tough secondaries, including Houston, New England, Arizona, Cleveland, Seattle, Denver, Buffalo, St. Louis -- the list goes on and on. To some, this played a huge role in Carr's lack of success.
The problem is, the schedule impact wasn't all that significant. In Carr's 16 games, he played above expectation in terms of Passing NEP versus opponent per-game Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP just four times last year -- against San Diego (14.14 Passing NEP vs. 4.28 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP), Cleveland (7.37 vs. 0.28), San Francisco (16.01 vs. 2.19) and Buffalo (4.68 vs. -2.31). Every other contest watched Carr play worse, in terms of NEP, than what his opponent's defense typically surrendered.
2. He had a historically awful running game.
One of the most frequent remarks made regarding my conclusion on Carr was that he didn't have any semblance of a running game, so that dinged his efficiency. After all, according to many, the Raiders' running game was "historically bad", and that can hurt a quarterback's success.
Well, first off, while the Raiders' running game was bad in 2014, it wasn't atrociously bad. The team finished with a -36.59 Adjusted Rushing NEP, which ranked second worst this past season, ahead of only Cleveland.
It was also the 70th worst rushing attack we've seen since 2000. And among these teams, the Raiders' Adjusted Passing NEP -- this is schedule-adjusted -- ranked 34th.
In other words, in a make-believe 70-team league where the Raiders have the best rushing attack, they were essentially average through the air.
The other thing to point out here is that Cleveland, with a worse rushing attack, finished higher in Adjusted Passing NEP than Oakland this year (thanks mostly to a good start). Brian Hoyer ended the season with better Passing NEP numbers than Carr had. And we all know that Cleveland isn't looking at the future feeling good about their quarterback situation.
3. He became more efficient with Latavius Murray.
To this point, plenty of folks pointed out that he was "more efficient" when Latavius Murray was healthy and playing. There's really no substance to this claim though. Not only is the sample size incredibly small -- Murray had 10 or more carries in just four games last season -- but even in games where Murray saw moderate to high volume, Carr wasn't overly impressive.
During those four weeks, Carr totaled -6.06 Passing Net Expected Points. Two of the four contests saw a 64.7 and 59.7 passer rating with a 4.32 and 3.69 adjusted yards per attempt average. So not only was this a small sample size to really draw any conclusions from, but he wasn't even all that efficient with Murray.
4. His weapons were lacking.
Oakland's weapons weren't good in 2014, and to say that they were would make it seem as though I'm writing this article just to anger Raiders fans.
This past season, Oakland's wide receivers finished with the fifth-lowest Reception Net Expected Points total (the number of expected points added on catches only). That's not good at all. The teams that ranked worse include the Chiefs, Jets, Vikings and Jaguars.
And let's not forget that Oakland's Mychal Rivera finished as the 17th-best tight end in 2014, per Reception NEP. Among the five teams mentioned, only the Chiefs had a better pass-catching tight end this past season.
Oakland receivers did drop a lot of passes, too, which factors into Carr's inability to produce. But drops are also generally overstated in sports discussions, considering the difference in drop rate between an average group of receivers to the worst in the NFL will often times be just a couple of percentage points.
From the Raiders' wide receiver perspective, they finished 2014 with a drop rate of 5.65%, according to SportingCharts.com. That was the second-worst rate in the NFL, with Baltimore ranking worse at 6.65%. However, the difference in wide receiver drop rate between Oakland and the 16th-ranked, average Rams was just 1.67%. That's not going to drastically alter a quarterback's Passing NEP.
We should conclude that Carr was working with a bottom-five group. In addition, he had the second worst rushing attack. So, really, no team had quite the combination of the two like Carr did.
But don't forget that other teams had bad situations of their own. The Browns, as mentioned earlier, had the worst ground game in the NFL this year, and a wide receiver group that was just 38 expected points away from Oakland's total, ranking 11th worst in the NFL. Teddy Bridgewater, as a rookie, didn't have receivers, either. The Rams and Titans had relatively comparable situations as well.
And each of these teams finished ahead of Oakland in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points.
So, yes, Carr's situation was poor. It was brutal. But he didn't perform reasonably well even when you consider the players he was throwing to.
5. He didn't have a defense.
While there's merit to those who think Carr was under unfortunate circumstances with his ground game and receiver play, there's little to the argument that his defense was terrible, causing him to make more mistakes.
Rather than rehash this debate, I'll lead you to a study I did prior to Super Bowl XLIX. If you don't want to read it, here's one sentence to describe the findings: a quarterback's performance isn't impacted by his defense's play.
6. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was strong.
Analyzing football from simple box score statistics can be misleading. That, after all, is why Net Expected Points is so effective -- it's quantitative, but it's not skewed.
Derek Carr had an impressive 21-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his rookie season, and as I mentioned in the original article on Carr, he's one of eight first-year quarterbacks to hit 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
The problem is that his touchdowns were short in distance. In fact, 16 of them came from 10 yards out or closer. And among all NFL teams, only the Dolphins averaged shorter touchdown passes than the Raiders last year. That can help explain his high (relative to historical rookies) touchdown totals versus his poor Passing NEP total -- scoring from two or three yards out is going to happen at a higher rate than scoring from 50 yards out.
Now, many will point out that all this shows is that Derek Carr can perform well in the red zone. That's not untrue -- he had a great season in the red zone last year, finishing with the 11th-best quarterback rating in that section of the field. But while red zone performance is important, we should also note that Alex Smith, Austin Davis and Kirk Cousins were better in the red zone than Derek Carr this past season, each ranking in the top four in quarterback rating. Is this now the statistic we want to hang our hats on?
Rich Hribar of XN Sports happened to tweet something interesting about Oakland's red zone efficiency recently as well, noting that it was one of the best we've seen over the last 12 years. The difference is that the team had far fewer opportunities than others listed, meaning there's a good chance for regression in the red zone.
7. Other quarterbacks have succeeded after starting poorly.
John Elway didn't have a good rookie campaign. Neither did Peyton Manning. Look how they turned out.
If this was the response you had to the original Derek Carr piece I wrote, then I didn't convey the entire point of the article very well. Carr can still succeed. He can still be a top-tier quarterback. Maybe he'll follow the path of Peyton Manning and John Elway. Who knows?
The reason I brought up Carr's first-season NEP numbers and compared them to historical rookies is because there seems to be a trend in first-year performance -- in terms of Passing NEP -- predicting career-long success. This doesn't mean that this is a foolproof way of determining how well a quarterback's NFL career will go. Rather, this is a game of probability -- players who have played like Derek Carr in the past have typically not gone on to have sensational careers in the league.
To pinpoint examples would be the same as saying that teams should forgo drafting a quarterback in the early rounds of the NFL Draft because Tom Brady was found in the sixth round. Meanwhile, the majority of "hits" at the quarterback position are still coming early. You can't let exceptions overshadow the rule.
The fact is, Derek Carr had the 77th worst season from a quarterback with 200 or more drop backs since 2000 (there were 539 of these instances) in Passing NEP during a pass-friendly era. When looking only at rookie quarterbacks, his score ranked in the bottom-quarter percentile. Regardless of his weapons -- regardless of his running game -- this cannot be defined in any way, shape or form as good.
That's why I don't have a lot of optimism moving forward.