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ALAMEDA — It was but a single play in a second half where a handful of snaps could have made the difference, but you could feel the collective groan of Raider Nation as well as second-guessers with a microphone or access to social media.
It’s the fourth quarter and the Raiders are clinging to a 19-17 lead against the Denver Broncos with 2:51 to play. Third-and-8 at the Raiders’ 48-yard line. Derek Carr has completed 27 of 30 passes for 272 yards.
Get a first down, and the game is over.
Carr throws quickly to Martavis Bryant well short of the first down marker. He’s tackled by Bradley Roby for a 3-yard gain to the Denver 49. The Raiders’ Johnny Townsend punts it into the end zone . . . and you know the rest.
When the Raiders got the ball back at their own 25-yard line, they had time for one play, a 13-yard pass from Carr to Amari Cooper. It was a franchise record for accuracy, 29 of 32 for 288 yards.
And a 20-19 loss.
Has Carr learned the error of his ways and will he throw past the stake in Sunday’s road game against the Miami Dolphins when the Raiders need a key first down?
If Carr gets a look from the Miami defense that suggests more pass rushers than blockers, he’ll take the completion and hope the receiver can make a defender miss. No sack, no fumble. If it doesn’t work, punt and take your chances.
“We were hot,” Carr said Wednesday when asked about the play. “If I were to hold on to the ball, I would have fumbled it and gotten hit and the ball would have been a touchdown and you would be asking me some very different questions. I’d much rather throw it the way we planned it.”
Nostalgia being what it is, Raiders fans fondly remember the days when Ken Stabler would throw passes to Fred Biletnikoff an inch past the stake, measuring the first-down yardage with precision. Or Jim Plunkett holding his ground, determined to wait for Bob Chandler to come free to the point where he’ll absorb a ferocious hit waiting for him to get first-down depth.
That’s not the Jon Gruden way, however, and never has been.
Gruden likes chunk plays and a perfectly thrown rainbow as much as the next guy. And Carr has the arm to deliver.
But what he loves more is avoiding sacks, sustaining drives and piling up completions. Sometimes the short throw, with its low risk, can still have a big result.
Martavis Bryant (12) can stretch the field but is equally dangerous on catch-and-run plays.
Carr contends if Bryant had gotten away from Roby “we’re one broken tackle with our big, old receiver from the game being over.”
In some quarters, adherence to the Al Davis “vertical game” lives on. As good as Rich Gannon was, there were critics who bemoaned his “noodle arm” even as he was delivering three straight AFC West titles.
In the season-opening loss to the Rams, Gruden openly wondered about of a couple of Carr’s passes in a game in which he was intercepted three times. He had no such concerns after the loss to Denver.
“A lot of balls are completed within 10, 12 yards of the line of scrimmage,” Gruden said. “The great quarterbacks protect themselves as much as the protection protects them. They don’t hold the ball for a significant amount of time, they have a feel for pressure. They avoid catastrophic plays. He’s got a good feel back there, for when to let it go and when to hold on to it.”
Carr said he is now anticipating what Gruden will call before he calls it and has bought in to the philosophy of maintaining manageable down and distance. Take the short gain to set up for a third-and-4 instead of a more risky play which brings up third-and-10 or worse.
He takes exception to the “conservative” label, noting the Raiders took eight play-action shots against Denver with good results.
“The coverages change, the pressure changes, the scheme changes, the personnel changes, all the things that people don’t think about change,” Carr said. “We have certain plays that we like versus certain looks. Sometimes it’s, `hey, keep us in this manageable situation. ‘ “
Miami coach Adam Gase said Carr’s ability to throw quickly presents problems.
“When guys get open quick and he knows where to go with the ball and the coverage is right for what is called offensively, that’s where he hurts you a lot,” Gase said. “He’s able to get the ball out quick and out front and let guys run after the catch.”
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Before the third-and-8 play to Bryant, the Raiders lost a chance on a downfield pass in the same drive when a 29-yard pass to Cooper was negated as both the receiver and Roby were called for pass interference.
In the Rams’ game, Gruden points out that tight end Jared Cook averaged 20 yards per catch (9 receptions for 180 yards).
“Throwing the ball on time and accurate is a big part of winning football,” Gruden said. “We hope to get more big chunk plays. We are making an attempt to do that, and I think you will see some more of that as the year unfolds.”
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