Last Saturday in Cincinnati, Derek Carr had the football in his hands with the Las Vegas Raiders’ season on the line, and there was plenty of reason for hope on the visitors’ sideline at Paul Brown Stadium.
So many times during the 2021 season, and throughout his eight-year career, Carr has come up big in the clutch. This time, trailing by seven points with just under two minutes remaining in a first-round playoff game, Carr drove the Raiders to the Cincinnati Bengals’ 9-yard-line and had three shots to the end zone in the final 30 seconds.
This time, he came up just short.
After the game, as he and his teammates processed the abrupt end of a tumultuous season, Carr shot his shot once more. This time, unequivocally, it landed.
Asked if he believes that interim head coach Rich Bisaccia should be hired on a full-time basis, Carr made his thoughts abundantly clear.
“I think we can all think that he's the right guy," Carr told reporters after the game. “He's proven that people listen to him. Our team listens to him. And I love him so much, I'm thankful for him. All those things will be decisions that I don't make, (that) I don't get to make. I just play quarterback … but with everything that went on, if you really look at what happened, all the pieces missing, everything that changed, yeah, he held it together.”
To be fair, NFL players often say flattering things about interim coaches, for reasons both strategic (in an industry with tenuous employment prospects, the boss you know is usually better than the boss you don’t) and sincere. Answering a direct question otherwise is awkward at best, and it would have been somewhat shocking had Carr or any of his teammates said, “Nah, Rich is just an interim who’s better suited to be a special teams coordinator. We need a rock star like Jim Harbaugh.”
In this case, however, Carr went above and beyond in his support for the status quo, citing “the fact that that staff kept everything together and kept us competitive and kept us finding ways to win football games” and adding, “We know what we want to have happen. … We're going to play football, but we just hope it, obviously, we hope it's for somebody special."
Against all odds, Bisaccia — with help from his top lieutenants, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, and the rest of his assistants — made the case to the outside world that he may, in fact, be special. His case inside the locker room is already airtight.
The Raiders were 3-2 when the fallout from the Jon Gruden email scandal, a byproduct of the workplace-misconduct investigation into the Washington Football Team and owner Dan Snyder, created a sudden opening that left owner Mark Davis angry and crestfallen.
Bisaccia and his assistants stabilized the situation immediately, winning their first two games, before a tragic drunk-driving incident involving wide receiver Henry Ruggs (since released, and facing four felony charges) produced a second locker-room crisis. Las Vegas lost five of its next six, falling to 6-7 and creating a distinct Here They Go Again vibe that reverberated throughout the football universe.
Then something totally unexpected happened. The Raiders, who’d finished 2-4, 1-5 and 2-5 in the previous three seasons under Gruden, shredded the storyline and won their final four games, including a 35-32 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers to secure a playoff spot (and keep their AFC West rivals from earning one) on the final night of the regular season.
There were plenty of reasons that the Raiders rallied, and one of them was as basic as can be: Bisaccia eased up on the practice workload, keeping his players fresh for the stretch run. Not only was this warmly received in the locker room, but it also proved highly effective.
“We didn’t have Gruden grinding us late in the year,” one Raiders veteran told me. “Gruden would kill us, and we would fall apart. The reason this team played so well down the stretch is that Rich listened to the players and took it easy over the back half of the season.”
Another big reason, obviously, was the understated excellence of Carr, who filled some of the leadership void created by Gruden’s absence, helped steel his teammates following the Ruggs tragedy and, quietly, had his best NFL season — even better than the 2016 campaign, when he was a legitimate MVP candidate before suffering a late-season broken fibula that kept him out of the franchise’s first playoff game in 14 years.
Based on my reporting, Carr’s strong comments in support of Bisaccia align with the beliefs of the vast majority of his teammates. Other Raiders players, such as star pass rusher Maxx Crosby, have echoed Carr’s public support, while others privately express similar sentiments.
“Rich has a calm presence,” one player said. “He has a good pulse on the entire team, being a special teams guy. He’s not a rah-rah guy or a great motivator, but he is passionate and guys love him. Everyone’s pulling for Rich. He deserves the job.”
Here’s where things get tricky. Normally, I tend to be extremely skeptical about overreactions to the short-term bounce often provided by coaches in Bisaccia’s position — something I call “The Interim Trap.”
There have been plenty of instances when owners and general managers have fallen hard for the temp, offered him the permanent gig and later regretted it. In 2009, Mark Davis’ late father, Al, hired Tom Cable as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach after a 4-8 stint as the interim; across the Bay, the San Francisco 49ers gave Mike Singletary the permanent job after he’d gone 5-4. Two years later, both were gone.
More recently, the Jacksonville Jaguars retained Doug Marrone after a 1-1 interim performance at the end of 2016. He coached the Jags to an AFC championship game appearance the following season but went 12-36 over the next three campaigns before getting the boot. So no — I’m not usually a fan of removing the interim tag at the expense of finding the right candidate via a comprehensive search.
In this case, however, I think Davis should give Bisaccia very, very strong consideration.
For starters, the Raiders seem to have a good thing going. Bradley, a former Jaguars head coach, transformed the defense in his first year, and that unit may well get even better in 2022 if there is continuity.
Olson, who took over from Gruden as the offensive play-caller, simplified the pre-snap shifts and formation disguises that had characterized the previous regime, and he expanded the passing attack, adding play-action, movement and quick throws. When all was said and done, Carr had thrown for a career-best 4,804 yards while completing 68.4 percent of his passes and engineering six game-winning drives.
Carr has gotten the most he can out of a lineup that features slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller (who missed five games down the stretch due to back and knee injuries and a positive COVID-19 test). Adding a legit No. 1 receiver and other weapons could take the offense to another level.
If Davis believes in Carr as his franchise quarterback — and he should, based on what the owner just witnessed in 2021 — he should think long and hard about this hire. Carr has one season left on the five-year, $125 million contract extension he signed in 2017 and could try to force his way out if he doesn’t feel appreciated or disapproves of the direction of the franchise.
Would he? That remains to be seen. Certainly, Carr has seen what such a power play has done for Matthew Stafford, who had only three playoff appearances in 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions. Now, in his first season with the Los Angeles Rams, Stafford is coming off his first career postseason victory and will go head-to-head with Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a divisional-round clash on Sunday.
Another valid question: If Carr asked out, would Davis care? Two years ago, and again last spring, several organizational sources expressed the belief that the owner was dissatisfied with his quarterback and wanted an upgrade.
Does Davis — who craved a rock star coach in Gruden and may be inclined to try to land another one now — have the same aspirations when it comes to the quarterback position? And in his mind, does Carr not qualify?
We may get some answers in the coming days and weeks. For now, Bisaccia and his assistants remain in limbo as Davis conducts a coaching search. He’s also looking concurrently for a new general manager, having fired Mike Mayock on Monday (after reports surfaced that Davis had put in requests to interview outside candidates for a job that hadn’t officially opened).
The Mayock firing doesn’t necessarily preclude Davis from settling on Bisaccia, but it doesn’t appear to be a very promising sign. A source familiar with the dynamic inside the building said there’s a widespread belief that Davis was already preoccupied with his next search after Gruden’s departure and during the balance of the season, and that Bisaccia doesn’t feel overly optimistic about staying on as head coach.
Davis, undoubtedly, will do what he thinks is best, and the fear of alienating Carr likely won’t sway him. Yet there are many people close to the situation who believe the owner should tread carefully.
“There is so much here to build on, if they don’t blow this up,” the veteran player said. “If they hire a ‘rock star,’ it’s a full-blown rebuild. It will set the team back a decade.”
In the meantime, here are the eight teams still standing after a not-so-super wild-card weekend — ordered to reflect my perception of their respective potency — and some scintillating queries to get you ready for the next round.
4. Tennessee Titans (12-5, LW: 4): Deep inside, how badly does Mike Vrabel wish he could suit up on Saturday, pile-drive Joe Burrow into the turf and exclaim, “How you like me now?!”
5. Buffalo Bills (12-6, LW: 6): When you can throw an epic touchdown pass without even trying to do so, is that a sign that this could be your year?
6. San Francisco 49ers (11-7, LW: 7): Is Deebo Samuel — who happens to be a wide receiver — the 49ers’ best pure runner since Frank Gore?
7. Los Angeles Rams (13-5, LW: 8): So it was totally Odell’s fault in Cleveland, and not Baker’s or Stefanski’s, right?