OAKLAND — Suddenly, things became serious. Sure, football games are serious in their way. Who wins? Who loses? Those kinds of things.
But this wasn’t merely football serious. It was life serious. It was Raiders quarterback Derek Carr getting sacked in the fourth quarter by Indianapolis Colts linebacker Trent Cole, Carr starting to fall, Cole twisting Carr’s right leg, Carr going down hard, Carr grimacing. Carr howling — an open-mouthed howl — his face gray with pain. It was coach Jack Del Rio running out to Carr and Carr saying to him, “I think it’s broken.”
He meant the front of his shin, officially his fibula. And it was broken. And with it, the Raiders season is almost certainly broken, too.
Everything on the field stopped at the moment of Carr’s fall. It all had an unnatural feeling. Carr, so brave and resilient, had played through a dislocated pinkie on his throwing hand. He is a tough guy, a throwback to when athletes really were tough and didn’t protect themselves for fear of blowing a huge contract. That kind of tough. For Carr not to get up was a big deal. He would fight through death to play.
As he rolled on the ground crying out, a crowd formed around him. Lots of Raiders went to one knee nearby and took off their helmets. Something profound about taking off their helmets — becoming mere men once again. Michael Crabtree stood over Carr. Looking at him. Crabtree protective. Andre Holmes paced back and forth. Nervous.
The Colts stood at a respectful distance staring at Carr. They showed no joy in his downfall. Football players share a common enterprise, understand the risks, generally like each other. The Colts saw Carr as one of them, and he was through.
Two attendants helped Carr up. The Raiders huddled around him on the field. He could put no weight on his right leg. He hung his arms around the two attendants and limped off the field dangling his right leg. His leg looked dead.
Later, Del Rio came to the interview room. Looked sober. Said Carr will have surgery Monday (it could be Sunday). Said Carr will be out indefinitely. I asked if Carr can be ready for the playoffs. Del Rio had no idea. To me, broken sounds bad. Sounds like a long time. Sounds like the Raiders are without him until next season.
Del Rio said the usual stuff coaches say when an irreplaceable player gets injured badly. Next man up. The team must pull together. You know the drill.
Del Rio may have meant it. What else could he say? He may have felt optimistic. But come on, Derek Carr is the one indispensible player on offense. As Bill Walsh always said, “The quarterback defines the limit of my offense.”
The Raiders offense just became more limited. Maybe it became very limited.
After Del Rio finished talking, the media walked into the locker room. Carr’s locker already was empty. Not a thing in it. No clothes. Nothing. Carr, who usually talks, who loves to talk, had gone home with his broken leg and his sad thoughts. Such a blow to him and his team.
And now Matt McGloin is the Raiders quarterback. Probably for the entire playoffs — as long as the Raiders stay alive.
So much pressure on McGloin. The Raiders may have to win their final game next week in Denver to stay ahead of Kansas City in the standings. If the Raiders tie with Kansas City in the standings, the Chiefs win the tiebreaker. And the Raiders become a wild-card team, have to play an extra game, and that game will be on the road. And the quarterback would be McGloin.
Next week could be wild for Matt McGloin in Denver.
And let’s say the Raiders finish as AFC West champs — do they have it made?
McGloin would have to lead them through the playoffs. How far can he take them? Be honest with yourself. Because, really, who in the world is Matt McGloin?
He is the backup. The perennial second banana. He plays if there’s a disaster — like now. He is the insurance policy. The sidekick. Never the leading man. Not in his life.
Derek Carr can always make the precise pass on third down to save a drive. McGloin? Not so much. This is not to put him down. It’s to put him in perspective.
McGloin is not special. He is just a guy. And just-a-guys are always replaceable, and they rarely become stars except in fairytales. Without Carr, the Raiders will have an average offense, not a dangerous offense, certainly not a quick-strike offense. They will be vulnerable in the playoffs. They won’t be the same team we came to know.
And the funny thing — well, not so funny. After Carr got hurt, nothing was funny anymore. But the strange thing was the Raiders were playing great against the Colts. Doing what they had to do. They had been a finesse team. Not tough. All that passing we’ve seen them do.
But against the Colts, the Raiders ran and ran the ball. Imposed their will — what a Super Bowl contender must do. The Raiders hurt the Colts and made the Colts’ defense suffer, made it back off. For long stretches, the Colts’ defense didn’t want to play — do the dirty work of defensive football.
Pretty soon, Raiders running backs had monster holes. It was beautiful to see this hard, ruthless football. The Raiders were roaring a statement, serving notice on the league: “We’re coming. We’re coming to the playoffs.”
The Raiders were beating up the Colts, and then the Raiders’ most important player got beat up. Badly.
And after that, the game became a mere game. The game fell into the background. Something very important took over. A serious theme. A grim serious theme. A harsh reality.
And now we ask: What about the future? Who are the Raiders?
Everything changed for the Oakland Raiders on a chilly Christmas Eve afternoon. Merry Christmas, Raiders.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.