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The lessons of Derek Carr
Another draft is here. So, how do we know which quarterbacks will ever make it? A look back at Derek Carr's college career supplies clues... especially in contrast to another 2014 quarterback.
This year’s quest for a quarterback reaches its climax in 10 days. Endless hours in the film room and interview questions and God knows how many sleepless nights for coaches and GMs alike finally lead to franchise-altering decisions with the 2022 NFL Draft.
Is this draft gushing with talent at the sport’s most important position? No. This is universally panned as a blah QB class. But a team could still find its man. We’ve seen specific traits go undetected or outright overlooked before, precipitating a drop. Lamar Jackson’s blinding speed was dismissed, and he fell to the 32nd pick. To the extreme, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen had no business being the 10th and seventh players drafted in back-to-back seasons. Their supreme physical abilities were met with more skepticism than wonder.
Mac Jones, taken 15th last spring, outperformed the four quarterbacks drafted ahead of him in New England. What he lacks in a singular jarring physical trait is compensated with a brain processing the X’s and O’s much faster than his peers.
And the ultimate example, of course, is Russell Wilson falling to 75th overall because he was 5 feet, 10 5/8ths inches tall.
It’s a guarantee that talented quarterbacks will forever slip through the cracks. There’s a good chance everyone’s missing something in someone this spring because there’s no inexact science more maddening than drafting a quarterback. No decision with heavier consequences, either. Whoever you choose will get contract extensions or pink slips for all — no pressure.
And the latest vet to sign a whopper of a contract brings to mind one more draft-day fall.
In 2014, Fresno State’s Derek Carr crash-landed to the Oakland Raiders at 36th overall after luminaries Blake Bortles (No. 3, Jacksonville), Johnny Manziel (No. 22, Cleveland) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32, Minnesota). So… how? How does this happen year… after year… after year… after year? Despite every conceivable technology at teams’ disposal, despite access to every snap of every game a QB ever played and personnel departments so long that they read like movie credits, we see gross miscalculations annually. Diving into this specific case — the college days of Derek Carr — does, however, provide clues. Over the years, I’ve chatted with several of his college teammates and coaches. All were stunned Carr fell because all saw his growth firsthand. Those closest to Carr through his five years at Fresno paint the portrait of a quarterback (and a man) who found himself.
Now, in Year 9, Carr must rise up in the sport’s most ruthless division.
His Fresno experience helps tell us what teams should look for in college QBs while also reminding everyone — right now — that nobody should sleep on Carr in the division of Mahomes and Wilson and Justin Herbert. Few quarterbacks have had to work with less than Carr his entire pro career, but that changes in a big way this season. He is reunited with his college wideout, Davante Adams, and now has one of the league’s smartest offensive minds, Josh McDaniels, calling plays.
As everyone detailed, no one should underestimate his internal drive, either. The Raiders have done a lot wrong over the years but they were right to give Carr a three-year, $121.5 million extension last week.
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First came the epiphany.
His first two college seasons, 2009 and 2010, Carr barely played but sure partied like the campus rock star. Teammates remember this Carr well because it’s much different than the squeaky-clean version the world sees today. During those hell-raising nights, however, Carr met a waitress near campus at BJ’s Brewery named Heather Neel. His pickup line was simple and effective. Neel was wearing diamond earrings that night and Carr asked her why she only had one earring, which made Neel quickly check both ears. They hit it off. What started as a friendship grew to a relationship when Neel gave it to Carr straight. A devout Christian herself, she didn’t believe Carr was practicing what he preached. He was out partying ‘til 3 a.m., usually surrounded by girls.
In a written letter, she gave him an ultimatum: Change his partying ways or she’s out.
His decision was simple and his re-commitment was immediate. He stood up in front of the entire football team and said, “Guys, I’ve been calling myself a Christian, and I haven’t been living it. You guys know what I’ve been doing. … Now, watch how I live my lifestyle.”
His game took off, too.
Tim DeRuyter took over as head coach ahead of the 2012 season and ditched the Bulldogs’ pro-style offense for a pass-first, no-huddle attack that suited his quarterback. Carr put up bonkers numbers, turned himself into a legitimate pro prospect and DeRuyter knew the change in lifestyle played a massive role.
Because it’s also true that DeRuyter had the ultimate perspective. He witnessed the other side of this spectrum.
A few years ago, I grabbed lunch with the former Bulldogs coach at Jacks Urban Eats in Fresno where the whole meal was on the house. DeRuyter was no longer the head coach at Fresno State but the locals still loved him. We sat down in a booth near the window and, 15 minutes in, the conversation shifted to the quarterback DeRuyter coached before Carr as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Texas A&M: “Johnny Football.” He started by praising Johnny Manziel as a transcendent athlete. Before Manziel even played a down for the Aggies, his legend was growing. Give him a basketball and the 6-footer could dunk. Hand him a set of clubs and he’ll shoot a 76 at Pebble Beach. During team workouts, he’d drop jaws. On the first day of offseason training, the school’s strength coach pointed to a 24-inch box, a 36-inch box, a 44-inch box and, as DeRuyter recalled, a 55-inch box.
“Eventually we’ll get to here,” the strength coach said, laughing. “You guys think you can one day get to there?”
Without stretching, Manziel jumped and landed on the 55-inch box.
And when Texas A&M was preparing for Baylor in 2011, the redshirt Manziel played the role of Robert Griffin III and destroyed Texas A&M’s No. 1-ranked defense daily. DeRuyter was livid. If his unit couldn’t stop a damn freshman, how would they contain RGIII? The game arrived and that year’s Heisman Trophy winner rushed for all of 15 yards on 12 carries. On the sideline, defensive starters told DeRuyter that Manziel was better than RGIII. “We can tackle this guy,” they said. “In the hole, you can’t touch Johnny.”
One year later, Manziel hoisted the Heisman. Like Carr, he had an aura about him.
Yet he drank. And drank. And never really stopped.
“He was enabled,” DeRuyter said. “He’d say ‘Well, I’m not doing anything different. I was able to kick ass in the SEC. I don’t know if you checked but I won the Heisman Trophy doing the stuff I’m doing now.’”
His family had money and never seemed to flash a red light. Nor did Manizel respect authority. The most he was punished in college was a half, so why change?
Manziel’s fall and Carr’s rise made all the sense in the world to DeRuyter when psychologist Tommy Shavers spoke to his team at Fresno State.
“The crux of his thing was how socially dysfunctional you can be based on the power scale,” DeRuyter said. “And if you have a lack of power like kids in the inner cities who have no hope, they’re just going to lash out because what hope do they see? And then you start going up the bell curve and you start to get a little more power and control your own circumstances, you get to that point where you have more power, more power, more power and you start doing this where you act dysfunctional, too.”
Next, his finger up in the air started to point down.
“When you don’t answer to somebody, when you live in a world with no red lights, and nobody’s held accountable, most guys can’t handle it. They go crazy. With Johnny, that’s what happened. He got in trouble, sat for a half, beat the crap of whoever they played in the second half.
“They say he didn’t study tape a whole lot. He’d just show up and be Johnny Football.”
Not watching film. Not taking football seriously. No red lights. It all caught up to Manziel. The magic inside of Manziel — let’s not forget this epic at No. 1 Alabama — was wasted on tequila shots and cheap disguises. And Carr, at his core, probably knows he could’ve spiraled out of control, too. He also could’ve faded into inebriated irrelevancy. Heather’s red light re-routed his life and, together, they fought through severe trauma that further defined him.
The first week of August 2013, ahead of Carr’s final collegiate season, the two had a son.
Unfortunately, Dallas Carr also entered the world with intestinal malrotation.
That night, the quarterback called whoever he could. Maybe it was 2 a.m. Maybe 3 a.m. Dave Schramm, the team’s offensive coordinator, couldn’t recall. His phone was on silent so he missed the call from Carr’s wife, Heather. “I called them back,” Schramm said, “and it was very scary.” The head coach? DeRuyter’s cell phone is never on silent. Every head coach lives in fear of such a call. When his phone buzzed him awake, and he saw it was past 2:30 a.m., he imagined the worst. Was this an arrest? A car accident? A death? Bad news was on the other line.
DeRuyter answered and his quarterback was bawling. he could not understand a word his quarterback was saying.
“Coach,” Carr finally mustered. “I don’t know what to do. They’re saying Dallas may not survive.”
That’s because Dallas — born a healthy 7 pounds, 10 ounces just hours earlier — was now throwing up dark green matter and needed to be rushed to Children’s Hospital Central California. His intestines were tangled and his life was at risk. DeRuyter told him to be strong for his family, Dallas had surgery and, to everyone’s shock, dad was back at practice. Carr was lights out, too. In preparation for Fresno State’s opener against Rutgers, teammates didn’t sense anything wrong with their leader. Then, suddenly, the head trainer called Schramm over with a phone in his hand. It was Heather. Dallas needed a second surgery. When Schramm delivered this news, Carr froze in a trance and his blue eyes started to well.
Schramm offered to drive him to the hospital and Carr, staying strong, insisted he was OK.
After two surgeries in four days, Dallas Carr survived. He spent 23 days in neonatal intensive care.
Two days after Dallas finally came home for good, Carr threw for 456 yards with five touchdowns in a 52-51 win over Rutgers. Teammates still remember the quarterback shuttling between practice and the hospital through August.
“It was tough,” former Bulldogs wide receiver Josh Harper said. “When it was time to see his son, he rushed off the field to get to the hospital and be there with his son. I just felt for him. At the same time, at practice, it felt like there was nothing wrong. It was an emotional time period for him. That just shows how mentally strong he is. Physically. To see our leader going through something like that and still come to practice? That set the tone for the season. To see what he was going through — and to persevere, to get through that — is a testament to who he is.”
It all made him as a person.
DeRuyter could remember Carr admitting to him that if he didn’t meet Heather, he had no clue what would’ve happened to his life. “I was going down the wrong path,” the head coach recalled Carr telling him. “I’m a Division I football player in a football town and I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. There are lots of women throwing themselves at me. I’m not living right in a number of areas.’”
Through it all, nothing was forced. Derek Carr did not concurrently evolve into some cookie-cutter leader. Everything felt real. Organic. The quarterback that DeRuyter had before Manziel at Texas A&M was a pre-med student, a married adult but he said Ryan Tannehill couldn’t connect with teammates in the same manner as Carr because he was so different than everyone else in the huddle.
“Guys looked at him like he’s up here,” DeRuyter said, “and not one of the guys. Derek? He’s just one of the dudes.”
Perhaps things have changed for Tannehill a decade later. He jumpstarted his pro career with the Tennessee Titans.
Threading the leadership needle is always tricky and never easy for NFL evaluators to decode. Talent-wise, Kyler Murray can compete with anyone and warrants the big contract he craves. His game is electric. Leadership-wise? The Arizona Cardinals want to see more. One team source described Murray as aloof to Go Long. That’s never been an issue with Carr who has been galvanizing locker rooms back to those Fresno days. DeRuyter brings up Magic Johnson’s first NBA start when the Los Angeles Lakers rookie treated Game No. 1 of 82 like it was the Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook at the buzzer won the season opener in 1979 and Johnson wrapped both of his arms around the center’s neck. “Settle down,” Abdul-Jabbar famously told him, “we have 81 more games to go.”
Said DeRuyter: “I see Derek that way. He just takes joy in competing and he wants it for all of us.”
That’s why Carr played all of 2012 with a sports hernia. It was difficult for him to move — Fresno State wouldn’t sprint him outside of the pocket — yet he barely said a peep about it. The team obviously wasn’t going to advertise this information to the public and Carr didn’t complain privately. Another reason DeRuyter called him “mature beyond his years.”
Teammates point to this injury en masse, too. They had an idea Carr was dealing with serious pain but, day-to-day, he wouldn’t show an inkling of weakness.
“If he doesn’t,” running back Robbie Rouse said, “why should the next person? He’s a different kind of beast.”
In the Hawaii Bowl that season, the Bulldogs were smashed by SMU, 43-10, a loss that served as an uppercut to Carr’s future draft stock because he was sacked seven times. That miserable day, Carr refused to use the pain from the hernia as an excuse to Schramm even though it was severely hampering his mobility. So, Schramm was not surprised in 2016 when Carr’s pinkie bent in a direction a pinkie should not bend and he continued to play for the Raiders.
Carr wears No. 4 in honor of Brett Favre, whose consecutive starts streak may never be broken. Hernias and pinkies aren’t going to sideline him.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy,” Schramm said.
His final year at Fresno, Carr passed for 5,083 yards with a 68.9 completion percentage, 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He and Davante Adams were the most potent connection in the country.
Rouse partied right with Carr those early college days. Everyone, he assured, “gets that freshman taste.” Countless kids don’t know how to handle newfound freedom. Carr just cleansed it out of his system after Heather’s letter. Harper arrived after Carr’s turning point but remembered older teammates telling him, “He was like that!” And after getting the good times out of his system, Harper decided to shape up himself. A major reason he had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
To teammates, all of the intangibles say far more about Carr than anything physical.
The worst Rouse heard was “crap” with maybe a “holy” in front of it. Carr never cursed. But the rare competitiveness always showed itself… especially in pickup hoops. Carr’s intensity ramped up whenever one of these games to 11 (by one’s and two’s) was on the line. He needed to take the game-winning shot, too. They’d play three times a week during the summer, often against guys on the Fresno State basketball team — including future NBA star Paul George, a friend who remembers seeing plenty of Black Mamba in Carr. Kobe Bryant has been Carr’s spirit animal for years.
On the field, Carr was never afraid to sell out.
Specific plays revealed everything about his mental makeup. Be it decleating a defensive end from Wyoming on a reverse after Rouse told him he needed to see a highlight or an airborne dive against Nebraska:
“I remember his sophomore year, we’re in Lincoln,” Rouse said. “It’s sold out — 100,000. Derek breaks to the sideline, does a front flip and scores. He has the picture blown up in his house. One of the best pictures I’ve ever seen. Of course it was a big play but it wasn’t a win-or-lose situation. That’s just his passion for the game. Every time Derek starts a game, that’s like a kid opening a Christmas present on Christmas morning.
“When Derek was coming out (in the draft) — when they’re saying ‘this quarterback and this quarterback’ — I’m like ‘They’re going to find out.’ I said, ‘Thirty-one other teams are going to find out the hard way.’”
That was the opinion of just about everyone, on both sides of the ball…
L.J. Jones, a defensive back, recalled Carr as a vocal leader in critical moments: “Derek is a person who’ll push his team. I know this as a fact. He pushed us at every point. He was a man amongst boys. He instilled in us that ‘we know how great we are.’ We go against each other every day. There’s no way we shouldn’t be winning—at all costs. He’d say, ‘Nothing can stop us. Why would we go down a path of destruction when we can be great?”
Isaiah Burse, a wide receiver, was very close with Carr in college and knew he’d never forget his draft-day fall: “How competitive he is, of course he’d say ‘I’m better than those dudes.’ Not in a cocky way but it’s ‘What can they do that I can’t do? I can make every throw. Every throw.’ There are some quarterbacks who throw the long ball and some who don’t have a strong arm but are accurate. He’d say ‘I can do all that. Why wouldn’t they take a chance on me? Because I went to Fresno?’ When he went to the NFL, he had a fire in him.”
Ejiro Ederaine, an outside linebacker, loved talking shit to Carr in practice. The two developed a lively rivalry. To him, it was never too complicated. Carr was a “workaholic” and everyone in his orbit couldn’t help but make the same sacifices: “He’s an old-school guy. A lot of people try to be that way. But you can feel when someone’s being real and someone’s not, especially in a locker room with men who’ve played football all their lives. He’s a real, real guy. It’s hard to put into words.”
As for the divergent paths in that ‘14 draft? Ederaine made a smart point on Manziel.
Manziel always appeared to be a player who thrived in the spotlight. The more everyone was talking about him in college — for better or worse — the more entertaining he was as a QB. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones believed Johnny Football was built for America’s Team and was borderline depressed when the front office stopped him from making a colossal mistake.
In truth, the opposite was true. Manziel didn’t know how to handle his skyrocketing celebrity. The media attention became a curse. He fed off it all in the worst ways.
“If the spotlight wasn’t on him,” Ederaine said, “I don’t think certain things would’ve happened. The spotlight’s bright. Some people can’t handle it.”
Leading up to the ‘14 draft, scout after scout after scout entered the offices of both Schramm and DeRuyter with a flurry of questions that inevitably led to one on repeat:
Is he like his brother? Is he like his brother? Is he like his brother?
A first overall pick by the expansion Houston Texans in 2002, David Carr was a human punching bag. Sacked 249 times in 76 starts, his career never appeared to have a chance given that the Texans’ offensive line was a broken dam. Yet, some people around the league also didn’t believe Carr understood pass protections early in his career. The Texans’ scouts grilled DeRuyter about Derek’s football IQ and he assured Derek was “off the charts” and “like a coach” and studied as much as any coach in the building and — above all — was his own quarterback.
He had the juggernaut numbers, the presidential image with the lightning-quick release teams sought at the position so teams figured there had to be a catch.
“No BS,” one scout asked Schramm. “Give it to us straight.”
And he did. Schramm said this is the player you want running your franchise. “I don’t care who else is in the draft — Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, any of those guys,” he said then. “You guys are idiots if you take one of those guys over him.”
Hernia or not, the sacks on film made some scouts squeamish.
At which point, Schramm would tell teams that no program in the country let their quarterback do more at the line of scrimmage.
“Because it’s my ass,” Schramm continued. “It’s my job. I trust this guy enough because he’s in here with me. This is who you want running your organization right now.’”
Carr was not robotically programmed like most all college quarterbacks piloting spreads — he read defenses. He called 80 percent of Fresno State’s plays on first and second down and the two gameplanned all third downs. One closed-door meeting between Derek Carr and Schramm actually eliminated the sack issue. Their first season together, Carr took 29 sacks, so the two reviewed each one in scathing detail. When Carr should’ve thrown the ball away. Where he should’ve detected pressure pre-snap. Why? How? Who? This 1-on-1 session, like others, was heated. Carr was “sour” after the meeting, Schramm admitted, because Carr thought the OC was blaming him.
The next year, Carr only took 11 sacks.
Both coaches tried explaining to teams how his leadership was different, too, how Carr sprinted with the running backs, lifted weights with the linemen and watched film until his eyelids flickered. They implored teams to visit with Derek, talk shop with Derek, eat dinner with Derek. He wasn’t his older brother. Yet he slipped all the way into Round 2, anyways. The Texans never could get past perception and took both Jadeveon Clowney (No. 1) and Xavier Su’a-Filo (No. 33) ahead of Carr. As the Jaguars, Browns and Vikings all drafted different quarterbacks, three thoughts crossed Rouse’s mind: “You made a mistake. You made a mistake. You made a mistake.”
Several teams would prefer a do-over.
A while back, I chatted with one general manager who passed, the Browns’ Ray Farmer. He began our chat by making one fact very clear: He will not divulge who said what in the Browns war room. He bit his tongue hard enough for it to bleed through the phone. Everyone was involved, yet the reasons a team would not draft Manziel, he said, were obvious. Asked if the team’s owner, Jimmy Haslam, wanted Manziel and the decision was completely out of Farmer’s hands, he said he was going to “remain silent.”
How Carr and Manziel were wired should have been clear to owners and GMs alike. Maybe that was why Farmer dismisses the suggestion that the NFL draft is total randomness.
“You can create a person’s successes if that’s what you choose to do and I’ll leave it at that.”
After two years, Farmer was fired.
Has it all been perfect for Derek Carr? Certainly not. In 2016, he was an MVP contender before fracturing his fibula on Christmas Eve. He rallied that Raiders team to seven fourth quarter comebacks in all and could’ve realistically reached the Super Bowl. There was something special about that group. Players in that locker room genuinely believed they’d find a way to win in the fourth quarter. While Carr has been armed with one of the best tight ends, Darren Waller, he hasn’t had much of anything at wide receiver. The Raiders toiled around .500 the next four years. And given what the Raiders endured in 2021 between Jon Gruden’s exit and Henry Ruggs landing in prison, Carr’s 4,804-yard, 23-touchdown performance through a 10-7 playoff run might’ve been even more impressive than 2016.
Finally, the Raiders made the right moves around him. McDaniels and Adams were the two greatest non-QB additions to any offense this spring.
After four years of trying to beat Mahomes, now Derek Carr must contend with Wilson and Herbert. Not ideal. But, if nothing else, the Fresno days are proof he’s calloused for the challenge. The Raiders could confidently give Carr big money, knowing the franchise is in good hands.
Does Malik Willis have any of this DNA in him? Kenny Pickett? Matt Corral? Somehow, teams must hunt relentlessly for the traits that don’t show up at the NFL Combine.
Connect at QB and you’ve got a shot. Miss and you’re spinning your tires.
“I think what happens,” DeRuyter said, “is you get so enamored with the film. You say, ‘Look at that athletic ability!’ That’s measurable. You see it. What’s not measurable is this and what kind of guy he is. And you have to do a great job of talking to everybody around them that touches that guy to see, ‘Hey, is he really the real deal?’ It could be, ‘Nah, that guy’s an asshole. He doesn’t give a s---.’ Again, it’s that power spectrum. When you think you have ultimate power… it’s hard to handle it when you have a lot of power.
“He’s got ‘it,’ that indescribable ‘it’ that very few guys have. Because it’s not just in one area. It’s everything he does.”
Bob McGinn’s 38th annual NFL Draft Series kicks off this week at Go Long, exclusive to subscribers. All nine parts will feature analysis from personnel men from across the league. Learn what the league truly thinks about all of the top prospects in this year’s 2022 draft by subscribing today: