Last week, what typically would have been an NFL Sunday turned into Saturday, with all but 12 contests played on Christmas Eve. The holiday season couldn’t have kicked off worse than it did after Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota both broke their legs, effectively ending their seasons.
Mariota and Carr are 23 and 25 years old, respectively, and have already proven they’re the future of their franchises. Both had been gaining momentum toward the end of the season, and both had their seasons tragically cut short thanks to similar injuries.
Fans of both teams have to be disappointed with the current circumstances, but perhaps they’ll feel better if they look at what the young quarterbacks have already accomplished, and look ahead at what the future holds.
Derek Carr helped turn the Raiders into one of the AFC’s best
Oakland showed progress last season, but not many expected the 2016 Raiders to be one of the biggest threats to the New England Patriots, the NFL’s most consistent contender of the past 15-plus years. Carr, who was putting together an MVP-caliber year, helped the Raiders find different ways to win every week.
He did this even when it seemed the Raiders were shooting themselves in the foot, like when they set an NFL record for penalties with 23, and still beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in overtime.
Those are type of games that franchise quarterbacks lead you to victory in, and they were ones that Oakland wasn’t finishing last year. Carr’s playmaking ability was a big reason the Raiders snapped the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL after a decade and a half of mediocrity, turning them into a team with the second-best record in the AFC.
The Raiders set the tone for their season early when they were on the road in New Orleans. After scoring a touchdown late in the game, Jack Del Rio opted to go for two and win the game as opposed to kicking the extra point. It succeeded, and the Raiders have pretty much rolled since, until Carr’s unfortunate injury.
Now, they're in the hands of Matt McGloin, who started six games for Oakland in 2013. Carr largely allowed the offense to click, but McGloin has experience with a much less talented Raiders team, so perhaps he'll be able to do just enough to carry them forward. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are a great receiving duo for him to work with, along with Latavius Murray in the backfield.
On the other side of the ball, Khalil Mack is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He has made big plays when Oakland has needed a stop, and has terrorized opposing quarterbacks with 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, and an interception so far this season.
In Oakland, the Raiders have long been viewed as one of the league’s messier franchises, but things have come together in the past few years, and it really showed in 2016. Under general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders have made the necessary changes to turn them into one of the NFL’s top teams.
Outside of draft picks like Carr, Mack, and Cooper, they added veterans like Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin, two guys who won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. It’s helped change the culture by bringing in players who have been to the highest of highs the game of football has to offer. It has also created a better atmosphere for Carr to grow in.
Carr had successful surgery this week, so if the Raiders make the Super Bowl, there is a slim chance that he could return however unlikely that is. Still, there’s room for optimism in Oakland, if not for this season, then for the future.
Marcus Mariota’s improvement kept the Titans in the playoff hunt
This season, Mariota showed the Titans that he could be the long-term solution they hoped for, and then some. Mariota put together a string of nine games where he threw for 21 touchdowns and only three picks. He also completed more than 67 percent of his passes during that span.
It came to an abrupt halt when he broke his fibula against the Jaguars. To add insult to injury, a Texans win later that evening gave Houston the division title and eliminated the Titans from playoff contention.
Coming into their game against the Jaguars, the Titans had won four out of five games, including quality wins over the Packers, Broncos and Chiefs. The Titans proved they could play with anybody at a high level.
Yet the Titans seem closer to the team that the Raiders were in 2015. Another offseason of adding talent, like receiving threats and defensive stoppers, and they could take yet another step forward next season.
The Titans had a miserable 3-13 season in Mariota’s rookie year. They had one of the worst offensive lines in the league, zero running game and Mariota looked lost at times. He still showed signs of promise, though.
Since then, the Titans found ways to help their young quarterback out. The team put together a line that has been able to keep Mariota upright, brought in DeMarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry. Murray has been one of the best running backs in the NFL this season, ranking third in yards with 1,266, just two yards behind Le’Veon Bell for second place.
The reinforcements helped Mariota avoid a sophomore slump, and he led the Titans to eight wins before he fell to injury.
Despite his injury, they Titans fixed problems that make success for a young quarterback much more sustainable compared to just a year ago. At the very worst, they’re guaranteed to finish no less than 8-8, which would be their best record in five years. A win on Sunday would give them their best record since their division title back in 2008. That doesn’t happen without Mariota.
The future for both teams makes the current setback more bearable
The Titans may not have made the postseason even if Mariota hadn’t been injured, but either way, the franchise took a big step this season after being one of the worst teams just a year ago.
Carr’s absence for the Raiders undoubtedly hurts more. Oakland hadn’t had any real success since 2002, but looked great all season on its way to a 12-3 record. For it to seemingly end with Carr’s injury doesn’t seem fair. Still, the Raiders exceeded expectations this season, and have a young core that’s going to do plenty of winning moving forward.
Both teams would love to have their young stars healthy and leading them into the postseason, but knowing that they’ve got many more years to come with them softens the pain, even if it’s just a little bit.