There’s enough blame to go around after the New Orleans Saints’ hugely disappointing 26-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and we’ve got to acknowledge a really uncomfortable possibility: Derek Carr’s critics appear to be right about him. He’s playing like exactly the sort of quarterback they lambasted when the Saints signed him this offseason. He’s struggling to manage an offense that has averaged just 13.8 points per game through the first four weeks.
Carr has not elevated the talent around him. In some ways he hasn’t gotten enough out of weapons who looked like obvious fits — big tight end Juwan Johnson broke out last season and was often compared to Carr’s favorite Raiders target Darren Waller but was targeted just a dozen times through the first three games, only once in scoring position inside the red zone.
On Sunday Chris Olave was held to single-digit receiving yards for the first time in his career, finishing with a single 4-yard reception on 5 targets. Michael Thomas didn’t catch his second pass from Carr until there were six minutes left in the third quarter. Carr funneled a ton of passes to Alvin Kamara (who caught all but one of his 14 targets), but they went nowhere, gaining just 33 yards.
Carr did lead the league in completions and yards gained on throws of 20-plus yards through the first two weeks, but that’s because he also led the NFL in pass attempts at that distance. He was being forced to do it against his nature. The Saints have been trying to make him someone he’s not and we’re seeing those limitations now. That might explain why offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has dialed up so many plays with receivers streaking downfield and few safety valves underneath. They’re desperate for him to connect on those big play opportunities.
This all describes a quarterback who is too eager to check it down, who lacks accuracy and a willingness to attack downfield, and who isn’t a big upgrade over the passers who preceded him. Certainly not to the tune of $150 million, which is how much Carr can earn if he plays out his four-year contract. The Saints structured it without a viable off-ramp until 2025.
Look at what was being written about Carr over the summer. NFL.com’s Mark Sessler ranked him one spot ahead of Andy Dalton (Nos. 23 and 24) during his split with the Raiders, saying that Carr was “destined to be oversold to fans as a solution.”
CBS Sports analyst Will Brinson put Carr in the NFL’s fourth tier as someone who cannot be expected to “take you on a deep playoff run or win you a Super Bowl without a really stout defense/run game combo or the stars simply aligning.”
And Pro Football Focus summarized Carr’s recent performances as such: “Carr’s big plays declined and he was notably less accurate overall. His adjusted completion rate dropped by more than 6 percentage points from the year before to his lowest level since he was a rookie.”
That all lines up with what we’re seeing from him now, which is really unfortunate to admit. The Saints signed Carr believing he could singlehandedly fix many of the problems with their offense while keeping Pete Carmichael at offensive coordinator with the rest of the starting lineup intact. They appear to have lost that gamble.
That’s not to say there isn’t time for Carr to prove his doubters wrong. It’s a long season and he and the Saints still have 13 games to figure things out. But it’s about to be Week 5 and they’re already well behind schedule. Instead of sitting on top of their division after the first month their in a tie for second-place (if you’re generous; tiebreakers have them in third in the NFC South standings).
But this wasn’t the vision the team had. It isn’t what head coach Dennis Allen foresaw when he introduced Carr as their new starting quarterback early this year. Things have gone awry and a lot of people have their hands dirty: Allen, Carmichael, general manager Mickey Loomis, and Carr himself. All they can do now is work to clean up this mess. That might start with some uncomfortable conversations about some peoples’ job security. What they’re doing isn’t working and they can’t try someone besides Carr in his role. So another aspect of the operation is going to have to change if they want different results. Hopefully that all gets sorted out behind the scenes so Carr can put his best foot forward and prove those critics wrong in the end.