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Derek Carr Is The NFL’s Newest Gunslinger

One of the surprise stories of the first quarter of the NFL season is that the Oakland Raiders have raced out to a 3-1 start. In the preseason, FiveThirtyEight’s NFL forecast projected that Oakland would win 6.9 games, but our Elo ratings now think the Raiders will end the season with 8.2 wins. At the heart of Oakland’s strong start has been Derek Carr, the team’s young quarterback who led game-winning drives in two of the team’s three wins. That’s nothing new for Carr: Since the start of the 2015 season, he has led six fourth-quarter comebacks, the most in the NFL. And they haven’t all come easy — four involved late touchdown drives to overcome long odds:

  • In Oakland’s Week 2 matchup against Baltimore in 2015, a field goal by the Ravens put them ahead 33-30 with 2:10 remaining. Oakland took over at its own 20-yard line, with a win probability of just 18 percent. (All win-probability estimates in this article come from ESPN’s model, which uses variables like down, distance, score, time remaining and field position to estimate a team’s chances of winning based on similar situations in the recent past.) Carr then led the Raiders on a nine-play, 80-yard drive and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Seth Roberts with 30 seconds remaining.
  • Against the Titans last November, the Raiders trailed 21-17 and had only a 21 percent chance of winning the game when the Oakland offense took the field on its own 10-yard line with 4:41 remaining. Carr led the Raiders on a nine-play, 90-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown.
  • In Week 1 of this season, the Raiders trailed the Saints 34-27 with 6:03 remaining, the ball at the Oakland 25-yard line and a win probability of 13 percent. Carr then led the team on an 11-play, 75-yard drive to win the game that culminated in a memorable 2-point conversion.
  • On Sunday against the Ravens, the Raiders, down 27-21, began their game-winning drive with 3:36 remaining and the ball at the Oakland 34. The Raiders had a 17 percent chance of winning the game at that point, but Carr took the team 66 yards on six plays to give Oakland the go-ahead score.

This season, Carr has been great in the fourth quarter, completing 27 of 45 passes for 368 yards (no sacks), with five touchdowns and just one interception. Carr’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 87.7 in the fourth quarter is second only to Ben Roethlisberger’s, 96.2. Carr is a legitimate offensive player of the year candidate on a resurgent Raiders team, and his strong fourth-quarter performance is one of the reasons.

But despite the game-winning drives and the success this year, Carr has taken his lumps late in games, too. Last season, he had a QBR of just 24.0 in the fourth quarter, the second-worst grade among the 33 qualifying quarterbacks (ahead of only Nick Foles). And this isn’t just a QBR issue — Carr also ranked second to last in fourth-quarter passer rating, at 67.5, again ahead of only Foles.

That’s because Carr isn’t necessarily a great fourth-quarter quarterback; he’s just a great gunslinger. And life as a gunslinger has some lows, too.

In Carr’s short career, he’s thrown five interceptions that have dropped his team’s win probability by at least 25 percentage points — i.e., particularly harmful plays at crucial moments in a game:

  • With the Raiders trailing the Broncos 9-7 last year and at the Denver 31-yard line, Carr threw a pick six, and Oakland’s win probability dropped from 55 percent to 6 percent. The Broncos won 16-10.
  • As a rookie in 2014, Carr threw a late interception to end a comeback bid against the Chargers; Oakland’s win probability was at 35 percent before that play and 0 after.
  • Carr threw two key interceptions against the Chiefs last December. The Raiders entered the fourth quarter up 20-14 and had possession at the Chiefs’ 33-yard line with a little over 12 minutes remaining. Carr’s pass was intercepted by Josh Mauga and returned 66 yards. Oakland’s win probability dropped from 87 percent to 53 percent. On the next Raiders drive, with Oakland’s win probability up to 57 percent, Carr was intercepted by Marcus Peters, and Oakland’s win probability fell to 24 percent. Later, Carr threw a third fourth-quarter interception (a pick six, no less), but by that point, the Raiders’ win probability had already dropped to 12 percent.
  • Before Carr’s game-winning drive against the Ravens in 2015, an interception nearly cost Oakland the game. With the game tied at 30, the Raiders had the ball on 1st-and-10 at their own 33-yard line. Carr’s pass was picked off by Will Hill, and the Raiders’ win probability dropped from 58 percent to 30 percent. The Ravens kicked a field goal before Carr put together the game-winning drive.

Since the start of the 2014 season, no other quarterback has had more than four interceptions that dropped his team’s win probability by at least 25 percentage points. Peyton Manning (4), Joe Flacco (3), and Matt Ryan (3) are the only other passers with more than two. In other words, those five interceptions by Carr make him a huge outlier — but so do his fourth-quarter comebacks. Does this mean Carr is the game’s ultimate gunslinger, willing to risk it all for a comeback when perhaps other quarterbacks are too conservative?

Yes and no. Carr throws a lot of touchdowns and interceptions in critical moments and obviously has a significant number of come-from-behind victories. I looked at fourth-quarter drives by all teams since 2015 that began with a team’s win probability somewhere between 20 percent and 80 percent. During that time, Carr has thrown the most interceptions (4) and is tied for the most touchdown passes (5, with Blake Bortles) while ranking eighth in pass attempts.

But Carr isn’t acting like a gunslinger in the classical sense: He’s still throwing a lot of short passes. In those situations, Carr is averaging just 9.3 yards per completion, the lowest average gain among 33 qualifying passers. Carr’s average touchdown pass in this situation traveled for just 9.2 yards. But given that yards per completion has generally been declining in the NFL, that may just make Carr the modern version of a gunslinger, even if his style won’t evoke memories of Raiders greats like Daryle Lamonica and Ken Stabler.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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