Sports

Derek Carr overcomes ankle scare to continue Raiders’ historic early-season groove

PITTSBURGH — The ball was just coming down from its 9-yard arc toward Foster Moreau in the left corner of the end zone when Derek Carr felt his surgically repaired right ankle give way.

The Las Vegas Raiders quarterback, whose 2016 season came to a painful Christmas Eve end with that fractured fibula, went down on the Heinz Field grass and was suddenly surrounded by teammates.

“There’s 30 people — oh, my gosh,” Carr recalled. “First thing I asked was, ‘Did he catch it?’ No one answered me. ‘Did he freaking catch it?'”

“Yeah, he caught it,” came the reply.

“All right,” Carr responded. “Get me up.”

Carr’s touchdown pass to Moreau with 5 minutes, 2 seconds to play in the third quarter Sunday gave the Raiders a nine-point lead en route to a surprising 26-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it was Carr needing medical attention that gave the Raiders and their fans heart palpitations and memories of that season-ending injury five winters ago.

“You just pray to the football gods upstairs that everything’s going to be all right,” said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. “That’s about all you can do.”

Because in one moment, Moreau is celebrating his first TD catch of the year. And in the next …

“I just saw [No.] 4 down on the ground,” Moreau said. “That’s just an awesome quarterback. I love the guy to death and out [of] the huddle he’s kind of letting you know, ‘Yeah, go get it.’ We know the play and we know the matchup.

“My mood definitely switched. Oh, man. Sunk down. Just way down.”

But after Carr was helped up, he walked off the field under his own power and went into the blue medical tent on the Raiders’ sideline before emerging with his right ankle heavily taped.

And he never missed a snap.

In fact, Carr is not just answering his harshest critics. He is also winning games for the Raiders, who have opened 2-0 with both wins coming against playoff teams from the previous season for the first time in franchise history, per ESPN Stats & Information research. It is also the second time since 1966 the Raiders have opened 2-0 with both wins coming as an underdog.

“The absolute worst thing in the world are the preseason rankings and talk shows and all that stuff,” Carr said. “All of that preseason stuff, none of that matters.

“You’ve still got to put the ball down. You’ve still got to play. And whatever team put the work in and is on their stuff, on their details, that’s the team that ultimately, hopefully, will end up winning … We’ve started 2-0 before, but we’ve got to keep going. We can’t let this thing go downhill.”

Carr’s Raiders won their first two games twice before, in 2017 (who can forget Marshawn Lynch’s Hyphy Dance Party on the sidelines?) and last year, only to finish 6-10 and 8-8, respectively.

What Carr did not do in either of those seasons was be as productive as he is now throwing the ball.

Consider: Carr is just the fourth quarterback in NFL history with at least 380 passing yards and multiple TDs in each of his first two games of a season, joining Drew Bledsoe (2004), Tom Brady (2011) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (2018).

Plus, Carr’s 817 passing yards through his first two games are the most in Raiders franchise history.

A chunk of his 382 yards in Pittsburgh, where he completed 28 of 37 passes, came on a 61-yard bomb to speedster Henry Ruggs III that gave Las Vegas a 23-14 lead with 9:35 to play.

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Derek Carr connects on the home run ball to Henry Ruggs III to increase the Raiders’ lead.

“That,” Ruggs said, “was a moon ball.

“Don’t drop it. When I saw that one, run. He threw it up and was just like, ‘Go get it. Go get it and don’t drop it.'”

Indeed, per NFL NextGen Stats, the throw went 46 yards downfield, tied for the longest pass TD via air yards of Carr’s eight-year career. And the air distance on the pass was 55.4 yards, the third-longest completion for Carr since it was first tracked in 2017 (air yards = yards past the line of scrimmage; air distance = yards thrown as the crow flies).

And this happened well after Carr had his right leg rolled up on by Steelers outside linebacker Jamir Jones.

Carr found inspiration from a close source — his teammates who huddled around him.

“It was an amazing moment,” Carr said. “I try to be someone who gives so much, and in that moment, they all came over and they all started praying for me. And it was just this beautiful moment, my teammates looking out for me. That, right there, is family to me. I love the touchdown, but that moment right there, I was like, ‘Man, I just want to win this game for this team.’ That was a beautiful, beautiful thing that happened.”

Carr, it should be noted, attended his postgame media conference in slides, with a slight limp but sans any brace or tape on his right ankle.

“Oh,” he laughed, “it will be … I’ll be fine.”

And after a short week and a cross-country trip to play in the NFL’s early window, regular rest and a home game against the Miami Dolphins (1-1) should be a balm for Carr.

After all, when he faced the Dolphins last year, he was recovering from a strained groin.

“I’ll just let his performance speak for itself,” Gruden said. “I’ve been clamoring for Derek Carr since I’ve been here. So, hopefully he gets some recognition for doing what he did today. He had some long drives. He was big again at the end of the game, against two great defenses two weeks in a row, and it’s a big reason we’ve been able to win.”

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