For Derek Carr, the journey to the NFL playoffs has been a long and often frustrating one over his eight seasons as starting quarterback for the Raiders.

No quarterback has ever endured as much losing in his first eight seasons as Carr has with only fleeting success in that same span.

That’s what makes this improbable trip to the playoffs for a Raiders team counted out just four weeks ago so gratifying. Especially for Carr, who has taken a big share of criticism for the losing seasons and now finally gets to perform on the playoff stage after being stuck at home with a broken ankle five years ago, when the Raiders last made it.

“Obviously, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was drafted,” Carr said. “That’s all I want to do is get to the playoffs and try and win a championship. The fact that we’re in the tournament, it’s really cool. I’m super thankful. I’ve worked my tail off. I’ve prayed that I could experience that one day and I get to. It’s cool. But at the same time, my goal wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was a part of it. But you always have bigger goals and bigger dreams and you’re always trying to achieve more.”

Carr didn’t have that opportunity in the 2016 season when he helped lead the Raiders to a 12-3 record before going down with an injury in the penultimate game of the season. Carr threw 28 TD passes and five interceptions that season and looked like an up-and-coming star after his third season.

But repeating that success proved difficult. Carr regressed the next season when the Raiders slipped to 6-10, then took time getting comfortable in Coach Jon Gruden’s offense.

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Carr had a strong season in 2020 but was done in by too many turnovers and a porous defense. Then a promising start this season looked like it would go to waste after Gruden was forced to resign over the publication of his old offensive emails and receiver Henry Ruggs III was released after being charged with felonies in a DUI crash that killed a 23-year-old woman.

The Raiders then lost 5 of 6 before recovering with four straight nail-biting wins to end the season and get into the playoffs. Carr was far from his best in that span with five turnovers and five TDs but he got the help that had often been lacking for much of his career as his 70 losing starts are the most ever for a player through eight seasons.

But Carr did manage to make some big passes in key moments, setting up winning field goals the past two weeks with spectacular throws to Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones that he might not have been able to deliver back in 2016.

“I feel like I’m a better player than I was then,” Carr said. “I was young and doing a lot of crazy things that were actually working out and didn’t always work out. But I just feel like a much more wise, smarter player now than I was then. I feel more equipped and ready now even than back then. It’s an exciting time for sure.”

Carr has taken big strides in his ability to extend plays in the pocket in recent years and his willingness to go deep, bringing more explosive plays to the offense.

He’s also been the constant leader in an organization that has dealt with plenty of turmoil, earning the respect of his teammates who are glad he’s getting more recognition because of the team’s success.

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“I notice nothing new about Derek Carr,” tight end Darren Waller said. “I feel he’s been the same person the whole time, just been weathering adversity year after year, week after week. The results may not have always looked the way people wanted them to. But Derek has remained the same person and improved as a leader and improved as a player. Now just the results are in our favor now.”

TEXANS: Houston has fired coach David Culley after just one season, days after the closed out a 4-13 season with a 28-25 loss to Tennessee.

The move that leaves the NFL with one Black head coach: Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. Miami’s Brian Flores was fired this week after leading his team to a 9-8 record.

Culley said Monday he expected to return, but General Manager Nick Caserio was said to still be evaluating him at that time before the decision came Thursday to move on. The 66-year-old Culley was hired last January to replace Bill O’Brien after spending 43 years as a college and NFL assistant. He took over a team that went 4-12 in the 2020 season with Deshaun Watson at quarterback.

Watson requested a trade around the time Culley was hired, and before 22 women filed lawsuits against the QB alleging sexual harassment or assault. The issues kept Watson out all season and precipitated a rebuild in Houston that left Culley at the helm of one of the NFL’s worst teams.

This is the first time the Texans have fired a coach after just one season. The team’s first coach, Dom Capers, spent four seasons in Houston before being fired. Gary Kubiak was hired next, and he was let go in his eighth season. The team parted ways with O’Brien after he opened his seventh season 0-4.

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VIKINGS: The Minnesota Vikings have targeted a diverse set of candidates for their general manager vacancy, including one woman: Philadelphia Eagles vice president of football operations Catherine Raiche.

Two people with knowledge of the process confirmed the Vikings have requested an interview with Raiche.

Raiche is in her third season with the Eagles. She was hired in 2019 as a coordinator of football operations and player personnel. Prior to that, the Montreal native worked five years in the Canadian Football League in the front offices of both the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes.

There are currently no women at the top of any team’s football operations, but as the NFL has lent more support in recent years, more women have risen to leadership roles around the league. Before the season, the Denver Broncos hired Kelly Kleine as executive director of football operations and special adviser to the general manager. Kleine worked her way up with the Vikings in college scouting and became their manager of player personnel.

The Vikings have requested general manager interviews with seven other candidates, in addition to Raiche: Cleveland Browns vice president of football operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Eagles director of player personnel Brandon Brown, Browns vice president of player personnel Glenn Cook, Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort, Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel Ryan Poles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vice president of player personnel John Spytek and New England Patriots scouting consultant Eliot Wolf.

Since owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf took over the team in 2005, the Vikings have hired or promoted several minorities and women to executive roles on the business side.

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The Wilfs fired GM Rick Spielman and Coach Mike Zimmer on Monday after the Vikings finished 8-9 and out of the playoffs for a second straight year. Spielman had been the top-ranking person in football operations since joining the team in 2006. Zimmer was hired in 2014.

COWBOYS: Dallas agreed on a contract extension for vice president of player personnel Will McClay, who has played a significant role in a series of solid drafts over nearly a decade.

McClay has often drawn interest from other teams seeking general managers, but has preferred to stay with the Dallas front office. Owner Jerry Jones also carries the GM title, with son Stephen Jones the second in command as executive vice president of personnel.

The 55-year-old McClay has been with the Dallas organization since 2002 when he was on the staff of the Arena League’s Dallas Desperados.

GIANTS: The New York Giants interviewed Quentin Harris of the Arizona Cardinals and Ryan Poles of the Kansas City Chiefs for their general manager’s job.

Co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch and senior vice president of player personnel Chris Mara, the owner’s brother, met with Harris and Poles on Thursday by videoconference.

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The Giants have now spoken with four men over the past two days. They interviewed Bills assistant general manager Joe Schoen and Cardinals vice president of pro personnel Adrian Wilson on Wednesday.

STEELERS: Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who injured his shoulder during a Week 5 game against the Broncos, returned to practice Thursday. Smith-Schuster was placed on injured reserve after having shoulder surgery.

The Steelers have a 21-day window to evaluate Smith-Schuster and decide if he will be activated from IR. He can be activated during any point in that window.

BUCCANEERS: Tampa Bay signed well-traveled veteran receiver John Brown to the practice squad Thursday. Brown, or “Smoke” as he is known in NFL circles, was a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2014 and played four seasons under Coach Bruce Arians.


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