During his 27 years in and around the NFL, Jon Gruden has developed a reputation as something of a quarterback whisperer.
From his first stint in Oakland, guiding RIch Gannon from journeyman game-manager to Pro Bowl fixture, to Tampa, where he navigated Brad Johnson to the best run of success in his career. And on to his quarterback camp, where he prepared outgoing collegiate arms for their transition into NFL rookies.
No matter his own capacity, Gruden has been able to coax the best from every quarterback with whom he has worked. Now, Derek Carr is square in his crosshairs. And the time could perhaps be no better, after Carr fell from preseason MVP contender to the epitome of average in 2017.
Pointing to a lack of continuity — three different offensive coordinators in his first four seasons — along with a season hampered by injury, Gruden was quick to push aside any worry having to do with the future of his expectant franchise quarterback, saying:
“He has a great arm talent; he’s athletic; he’s got natural leadership skills; he’s young — he’s in his prime — he’s healthy now. … I think he’s got huge upside.”
Obviously, some of that upside was realized when Carr finished the 2016 season as the NFL’s eighth-highest rated passer (96.7), boasting 28 touchdowns (T-7th) tossing just six interceptions. Each of those numbers went in the wrong direction in 2017, when he finished with a 86.4 passer rating (19th), 22 touchdowns (T-12th) and 13 picks — enough to tie him for seventh-most in the league.
“Derek got hurt, early in the season against Denver. Three broken bones in your back, I think that’s a reasonable reason why you might not have the same season you had a year ago.”
Before the injury — which occurred in Week 4 — Carr carried a rating of 101.2 with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, each coming in a Week 3 loss to Gruden’s brother Jay in Washington.
A now-healthy Carr should be able to somewhat easily look past his tough campaign and on to a future which holds the tutelage of a man who helped Brad Johnson do the same.
On the heels of a Pro Bowl season in 1999, Johnson suffered through two of his worst. Coming off of 32- and 33-year-old seasons that brought a combined 24 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and a passer rating right around 76, Johnson returned to Pro Bowl form in his first year under Gruden (2002), finishing a Super Bowl winning season with 22 touchdowns and six picks.
Similarly, Gannon brought a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of just about 1.2-to-1 (66-to-54), in 11 seasons before coming to Oakland (1999). In his three seasons on Gruden’s Raiders, Gannon made his first three Pro Bowls, finishing a three-year binge with 79 touchdowns and 34 interceptions (2.3-to-1)
Of Carr’s future under Gruden, Gannon told Bay Area News Group’s Matt Schneidman:
“I think he should be thrilled that he’s gonna get an opportunity to work with what I think is the best person in the business when it comes to calling plays and preparing a quarterback to play that position. I’m really excited for him and I hope he’ll take advantage of the opportunity and embrace it.”
Playcalling is something that can be underrated in the performance of a quarterback. Playing to a signal caller’s strengths, and limiting the defense’s access to his weaknesses is a skill at which Gruden has thrived in an 11-year head coaching career — something with which 2017 offensive coordinator Todd Downing struggled.
While Gruden will be doing the playcalling, saying that all he knows is calling plays and developing quarterbacks, he will admittedly lean heavily on his newly appointed offensive coordinator, Greg Olson.
Olson OC’d Carr to a productive 21-touchdown and 12-interception rookie season in 2014. He then spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons pushing Blake Bortles to two highly productive, though less-than-efficient, seasons before spending the 2017 seasons transforming Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff from a wide-eyed, inconsistent rookie into a one of the game’s top passers.
That is the type of greatness Gruden expects Olson to reveal in Carr — or perhaps even greater, being that Olson’s masterpiece will begin with what many would call a purer canvas than his previous works.
Gruden’s staff search has not stopped at Olson, however, as he unveiled his recruitment for both the defensive coordinator — Paul Guenther formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals — and special teams coordinator — Rich Bisaccia formerly of the Dallas Cowboys — positions.
While each member of the coaching staff will obviously play a key role in returning Oakland to the playoffs, there is no doubt that the main focus of the entire Raiders organization will be returning the offense, and leader Derek Carr, to its overwhelming 2016 form. Because, as it has been proven many times over, to be competitive a team needs production from each unit, position, player on the roster, but winning it all starts with production from the passer.
“I think there’s a huge ceiling for Derek Carr, and this group. It’s up to us, as a coaching staff, to improve around him, get more consistent, come up with an offense that really allows him to score. It’s exciting. We’re excited to see No. 4 on the sideline.”