ALAMEDA, Calif. -- On more than a few occasions earlier this season, it appeared as though Derek Carr and Jon Gruden were just unable to understand one another when it came to the Oakland Raiders' offense, barking at each other on a sideline in Arizona.
Trying to get on the same page? They were, as one Raiders player said, trying to speak the same language.
And now, with two games remaining in their first season together as quarterback and quarterback whisperer in Gruden’s offense?
“He is fully fluent, yes, he is,” Gruden said of Carr with an impish grin this week. “He is more fluent than I am. I mean he is playing great football. ... I think he’s really excited about where we are heading and his confidence level is very, very high right now.”
Indeed, Carr’s play of late, efficient if not explosive, gives rise to the notion that, despite so many midseason trade rumors, he will be Gruden’s quarterback in 2019.
Through the Raiders’ first six games, Carr had a 40.9 Total QBR in completing 71.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. Since then, his Total QBR is 56.6, with a 65.5 completion percentage, 12 TDs and no interceptions.
In fact, his streak of 301 passes without a pick -- he was last intercepted Oct. 7, in the end zone on a 1-yard toss against the Los Angeles Chargers -- is the longest active such stretch in the NFL.
Early on, it looked as though Carr was playing to impress Gruden rather than just, well, playing. A midseason come-to-Jesus meeting with Gruden seemed to flip a switch.
“He just kind of sat me down and said, ‘Let’s not take your right arm out of things. Let’s just take it back to the simple things,’” Carr recalled. “We didn’t cut anything out. I just think that the way he was starting to word things was different. Instead of every little detail, because if you give me 100 details, I’m going to try to do 100 all correct.
“Now he’s said, ‘Well, let me give you 50 details and let’s just let your talent take over the rest.’ We’ve been doing that and correcting as we go and adding here and here. It just helped me play freer for our team and for him. It’s been nice.”
Even after that bumpy start, Carr is on pace to throw for a career-high 4,225 yards and complete a career-best 68.3 percent of passes.
And yet ... he is also on pace to throw a career low-tying 22 touchdown passes, could go 3-13 for the second time in his career and he has already been sacked 47 times.
Plus, Carr just jumped ahead of Jeff George for most losses by a quarterback in his first five NFL seasons, 45-44. Lose out and Carr’s 47 defeats would be one behind Blake Bortles for the second-most. The QB with the most losses in his first five seasons? Carr’s brother David, with 53.
Carr has his locker-room supporters, and his staunchest defender is his best friend.
“You don’t have to be real smart to realize Derek Carr’s a pretty good football player," tight end Lee Smith said. "It’s exciting to watch him play and continue to grow and grow. I truly believe he’s the future at that quarterback position in our league. He’s the young quarterback that’s going to be kind of the face.”
Two years into a five-year, $125 million contract extension, he'd better be the face of the Raiders. And when the 27-year-old has a clean pocket -- a rarity these days with so much shuffling on the beat-up offensive line -- Carr has delivered.
His 101.9 passer rating inside the pocket is eighth-best in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information research. The New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees is tops at 120.4, while the Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Rosen is last at 67.8.
But clean pockets are hard to come by. Pro Football Focus data has Carr being sacked on 27.6 percent of his dropbacks when pressured this season, the third-highest rate of any quarterback through Week 15.
“I think he’s hanging in there, no question,” Gruden said of Carr. “I am sure he is sore. He knows he is carrying us right now on offense. That’s what a franchise quarterback is paid to do, but we are doing everything we can to support him, to try and put him in position to audible at the line of scrimmage, fix problems, and move the football and ultimately win games. He really has had us in position to win a lot of these games. It’s a credit to him.”
Another bizarre stat: In six games with receiver Amari Cooper, Carr had a passer rating of 89.4. In his first seven games without Cooper, Carr’s passer rating was 105.4.
“With three new guards, losing a right tackle, a feature back, three top receivers, the guy is a hell of a player,” Gruden said. “We know we got to get better around him, and that we will.”
Sounds like a vote of confidence going forward. And, really, the only other time Carr has enjoyed the same system in consecutive seasons came in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Carr finished tied for third in NFL MVP voting and the Raiders were about to be 12-3 when his season ended with a broken leg.
With continuity, another year in Gruden’s system and more offensive pieces to fit said system, the hope in Oakland is Carr will make another jump.
“Those thoughts are nice,” Carr said. “To know that we’ve come so far in such a difficult offense to learn, mentally to play in, but once you see it start to work it’s kind of like this beautiful art piece. You see it -- a little bit of chaos in the beginning -- and then at the end you’re like, ‘Oh, that looks pretty nice.’
“It feels like that, it feels like it could be that. But none of that matters unless everyone continues to work how we’ve been working and taking care of business on and off the field. Because if we can do that and get the right people doing that, this thing could look really nice.”