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Barber: Raiders’ Derek Carr caving under pressure

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr takes the field for warmups prior to an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

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Watch coach Jack Del Rio’s postgame press conference from Buffalo, and then check out his Monday presser from Sarasota, Florida, where the Raiders are staying this week between East Coast games. (Both are available, at least in part, on the Internet.) Side by side, they could be before and after videos advertising a residential treatment program that offers vegetarian cuisine and poolside yoga.

Immediately after the Bills game, Del Rio seems perturbed. Glassy eyed. A bit frazzled. His face, sunburned since training camp, practically glows with intensity. His team has just lost a crucial football game by 20 points, and it is making the wheels inside Del Rio’s head spin like turbines. The day-after video is much more comforting. The coach has regained his sense of calm. He manages a few smiles. Even his sunburn has dimmed.

Del Rio will never be as generous with the media as his 49ers counterpart, Kyle Shanahan, who freely admits his bad decisions and breaks down the X’s and O’s of botched plays as if the interrogator is his offensive quality control coach.

But as Del Rio entertained a few captive beat writers in Sarasota on Monday afternoon, he dropped his bravado just a little. He didn’t exactly open a floodgate of information. But he was less guarded than we’re accustomed to seeing, especially in the wake of a loss. Del Rio was almost, dare I say it, confessional.

At one point, someone asked him about his defense failing to have recorded a single interception in the first half of the season, a statistic that does not seem real. Del Rio went big-picture in his answer.

“Part of it is, you know, how we play defensively, to let it rip,” he said. “Probably (been) overly cautious, trying too hard not to do things, as opposed to just playing and let it rip. I know (the) Raiders football team that I envisioned having. We’re not playing like that — what my vision is. We’re not playing like that right now. We need to be more physical up front offensively and defensively. We need to be playmakers aggressively going for the ball, competing. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The transcript doesn’t do the answer justice. Honest emotion animated his face as Del Rio described his vision.

And his analysis was spot-on. The Raiders weren’t particularly dominant when they raced to a 12-3 record before Derek Carr’s injury last year. But they were freewheeling, confident and fun. If the game was close in the final 5 minutes, they just knew it was theirs to win. That surety has largely disappeared this season. You get glimpses of the talent. But the Raiders, and especially their offense, are more tentative, more stilted.

After Oakland had beaten the Chiefs on Oct. 19, left tackle Donald Penn said he had been playing too conservatively, trying to be perfect instead of, as Del Rio says, “letting it rip.” The same could have been said about the whole offensive line. New coordinator Todd Downing is another likely suspect. This is his first year calling plays, and the whole operation looks disjointed compared to Bill Musgrave’s offense of 2016.

But there is another major contributor to the Raiders’ offensive flat tire. It’s the one nobody wants to talk about. It’s Derek Carr.

“I don’t put it all on the quarterback, but he is a big problem because he has been so inconsistent,” former NFL safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said Sunday night. “One week he looks like Aaron Rodgers, the next week he looks like an average quarterback. … When I think about Carr, he is the one guy we always seem to give a free pass to. We always criticize or compliment all of the other quarterbacks. Why do we give him a free pass? What has he done so spectacular in this league? I just think he is overrated.”

“No!” we scream, plugging our ears and singing “la-la-la-la-la.” Derek Carr is Oakland’s quarterback and savior. He landed in our laps in the second round of the 2014 draft, and he is our best hope of seeing the Raiders reach the Super Bowl before they reach a patch of dirt across the freeway from the Las Vegas Strip.

I get your reluctance. Carr is the best quarterback to play for the Raiders since Rich Gannon. Before he got here we were treated to an off-tune parade of Andrew Walters, Josh McCowns, JaMarcus Russells, Daunte Culpeppers and Terrelle Pryors. Finally, Reggie McKenzie drafted a guy who was young and athletic and able to make all the throws.

And that’s exactly how Carr played last year, when he racked up 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and a passer rating of 96.7.

Carr has found success this year, too. He just hasn’t sustained it. Of his seven games (he missed one with a broken bone in his back), three have been absolute stinkers. One of those should be absolved; His back was likely still bothering him when the Chargers upset the Raiders in Week 6. But Carr was awful at Washington in Week 3, before the injury, and pretty bad Sunday at Buffalo though he seemed to be moving just fine.

Carr engineered a couple of very crisp drives in that 34-14 loss to the Bills, including one to start the game. At times, though, he was curiously off-target — especially when you consider how clean his pocket was for most of the day.

Late in the first quarter, for example, facing third-and-10 at the Buffalo 42, he threw a pass down the right sideline that pulled Amari Cooper out of bounds. Much later in the game, when the Raiders trailed by 20 with just 3:21 left, he missed Cooper on a slant route on fourth-and-3. Cooper wasn’t open on either of those plays, but both came in situations where Carr was obligated to at least give his best receiver a chance to make the catch.

More evidence: With about 11:35 on the clock in the third quarter, Carr tried to go to Michael Crabtree over the middle, and Bills linebacker Preston Brown had no trouble batting down the pass. Two plays later, Carr went back to Crabtree, and it was a virtual instant replay, except this time Brown tipped the ball to teammate Micah Hyde for an interception.

There is a randomness to Carr’s regression, but also a recurring theme. According to Pro Football Focus, a scouting service that tracks every play, Carr ranks 31st in the NFL with a 37.8 passer rating when pressured, with zero touchdowns and three interceptions.

Can it be? The Raiders’ young gunslinger, the kid with the ever-present gleam in his eye and swagger in his walk, wilting in the face of a pass rush?

So it would seem, and it may be affecting his approach.

“Derek is one of the best in the league in making quick decisions to get the ball out of his hands,” Del Rio noted. “(Sunday) there were some occasions where we look at the film, and he looks at it, and says, ‘I had more time. I wasn’t under duress. I had more time to scan the field and take some of the shots that we had designed to take.’ Get the ball down the field the way we can, the way he’s capable of. those are things that are there. We all have to do better.”

Del Rio later made it clear that Carr was supposed to take a shot into the end zone with 1 second remaining before halftime. Instead, he saw the Bills crowding the end zone and dumped short to running back Jalen Richard for 15 useless yards.

The guy who tied for third in MVP voting a year ago isn’t just playing poorly. He’s playing timid.

Let’s be clear, quarterback play in the NFL is difficult to evaluate. We don’t know how much pain Carr is experiencing in his back, or to what degree Downing’s offensive scheme is holding him back. But we can be certain that Derek Carr 2017 isn’t playing like Derek Carr 2016, and that the 3-5 Raiders have no chance at a miracle playoff run unless he can find his way again.

It’s time for Carr to let loose.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.