Why Saints QB Derek Carr almost retired from football

METAIRIE, La. — When the Las Vegas Raiders officially released Derek Carr on Feb. 14, the veteran quarterback felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

Carr, who had a 63-79 record over nine seasons with the franchise, spoke to Raiders coach Josh McDaniels on the phone. They both expressed regret that it did not work out and wished each other luck.

When it was over, Carr texted his older brothers David and Darren.

“I was like, ‘Bro, I’m free! I’m free!’ They were like, ‘Let’s go, let’s figure it out,’” the youngest Carr said. “So it was a relief kind of moment. Once the decision is made, do you want me to still feel sorry about it? No, I’m ready for the next thing.”

The next thing came less than a month later on March 6, when Carr agreed to a four-year, $150 million deal with the New Orleans Saints, reuniting him with former Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who helped draft him in 2014.

Carr made his first start for the Saints on Sunday, completing 23 of 33 passes for 305 yards, one touchdown and an interception in a 16-15 win against the Tennessee Titans at the Caesars Superdome. He is the second player in franchise history to pass for 300 yards in his team debut, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Carr was all smiles after the game, joking about the turnaround from his 24-0 loss with the Raiders to the Saints at the Superdome last year.

“That was unbelievable,” he said. “When we scored that touchdown, I couldn’t help myself to start dancing. That was awesome. That was ridiculous, man. It was good to be on that side of it. Last year, it wasn’t so fun.”

Carr’s Saints debut marked the beginning of a new stage of his career, one that almost didn’t happen after Carr found himself questioning his direction and love for the game with the Raiders.

“You fall in love with one place, you give them all you have for almost a decade and now all of a sudden, it’s gone,” Carr told ESPN. “… Do you want to go do it somewhere else? You know, your heart is so much there. You’re torn, and there’s emotions.”

There were times when Carr wondered if the 2022 season was it for him, especially toward the end when the Raiders made him inactive for two games. He watched his teammates play without him, feeling lost and frustrated.

“I wanted to be there for my guys,” Carr said. “The fact that I wasn’t able to do that, it hurt, but at the same time, I’ve always said this, nobody cares. Nobody cares how I feel. This is a business.”

That frustration had been brewing for a while, and it wasn’t lost on his family. Carr’s mother, Sheryl, said when it came to football, she felt like lights were dimming in his eyes by the end of his tenure in Las Vegas.

“To see him kind of lose that enthusiasm, like, ‘I don’t know mom, I don’t know if I want to play anymore, I don’t know what to do.’ His dad and I just were saddened,” Sheryl said.

IN THE MONTHS between those final two games and the Saints start of OTAs in May, Carr had to figure out how to love football again.

The business side of football had taken a toll, according to Carr’s wife, Heather. With the Raiders, he played for six coaches and three general managers and saw the franchise relocate from Oakland, California, to Las Vegas.

“We had so much change, we could get used to a coach or the players that were here and then they’d leave,” Heather said. “I know that’s the NFL business, but I think that’s the hardest part, kind of always starting over.”

Carr could also sense by the end that the Raiders had one eye on a potential quarterback of the future and the other on keeping him as the face of the franchise as they transitioned to Las Vegas in 2020.

“There were many offseasons where I’d have a great year, and they were like ‘Alright, who are we going to draft?’” he said of conversations about his potential replacement. “‘Who are we going to draft? What are you talking about?’ … It’s driving me nuts. Like, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you watching the same film I’m watching?’

“As a competitor, some of that stuff was annoying, and when those questions wouldn’t get answered … it’s just like, as a competitor, I’m going to keep proving myself.”

Those things put a damper on the pure love for the sport he’d grown up with since childhood. Sheryl can still close her eyes and picture him at various ages, running up and down the field, jumping and yelling and high-fiving like he’s a little kid.

“He goes nuts,” she said.

That love was passed down from his father, Rodger, who used to sneak the older boys through the fence onto Fresno State’s field at night. They’d toss the football around and dream of what it might be like to play in front of a crowd.

“They just loved it since they were little. And Rodger loved it with them,” Sheryl said. “He taught them how to play it, and how to love it, and I think they try really hard not to lose that, that love for the game.”

Years later, Derek and David would both play in that same stadium, setting records and eventually seeing their jerseys retired. All three would play football at some level; Darren played defensive line for Bakersfield College and the University of Houston.

David, 12 years older than Derek, played for Fresno State from 1997 to 2001. He would take Derek to the stadium, put him on his shoulders and sign autographs for fans, who quickly became enamored with his baby brother.

“Derek would stand on the ramp and he’d sign more autographs than David,” Sheryl said. “Everybody wanted Derek’s autograph. It was the cutest thing.”

David taught Derek everything he knew about football, running over concepts with him while the family got ready for dinner.

Derek took some of that information with him into sixth-grade football, when he called an audible at the line of scrimmage. His team scored a touchdown, but the coach benched Derek and called Rodger over to discuss the situation.

Rodger was shocked that his mild-mannered son had gone against what his coach wanted, but Derek immediately pleaded his case against the original play.

“But it wasn’t going to work,” he told the two men, before rattling off a concept David had explained to him.

The coach laughed before repeating his stance.

“He goes, ‘But Derek, you have to do what I tell you,’” Sheryl said, laughing. “Derek from a very young age, he knew more than they did.”

Things got more complicated as Carr got older. When he reached free agency for the first time in his career, he wanted to uncomplicate them.

Carr holds the Raiders’ franchise records for passing yards (35,222), touchdowns (217), attempts (4,958), completions (3,201), game-winning drives in the fourth quarter (33) and most starts for a quarterback (142). He’s been to four Pro Bowls.

He had the records and the accolades, but no Super Bowl. All he wanted now was a place to win games, and the Saints provided an enticing way to do that.

“I’m looking for anything and everything that can give me [an edge]” Carr said, “because I can’t wait to leave my mark here, in the games — leaving legacies, breaking records, we did that with the Raiders.

“The only reason I’m here is to win.”

DEREK LEANED ON David for advice when looking for a potential landing spot. David told him to look at the big picture: Had the organization consistently won over the last 15 years? Did they show growth?

Rodger supported Derek in a different way, showing enthusiasm every time Derek was able to narrow down the potential pool.

“It would be fun for him to know that stuff,” Carr said.

Carr loved the idea of playing with Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was insistent about Carr signing with the team. Thomas described their relationship as “amazing” in June.

“He’s a pro, it’s great for these young guys to see [him] as the leader,” Thomas said. “Just everything, just watching him when he gets in the building. Kind of how Drew [Brees] was. … He wants to win, just like I want to win. He’s just very disciplined. He’s on top of his stuff. He came here for a reason.”

The duo showed off that chemistry against the Titans, with Thomas catching five passes for 61 yards.

“I love Mike,” Carr said after the game. “He’s the ultimate competitor. And wow, on game day, I love the communication that we have. It’s a different level, man. He reminds me so much of [Raiders receiver] Davante [Adams] and the way they approach the game.”

But Thomas was already planting those seeds of communication long before they played together. Carr said in their first conversations before he signed with the Saints, he could barely get him off the phone.

“That to me, with the production that he’s had, the kind of player that he is and how hard he works … it was hard for me to ever think about anything else because every time I was talking to someone else, all I could think about was, Mike was texting me,” Carr said. “Literally when I went to [the] New York [Jets] on that visit … I got a text from Mike.”

He loved that the Saints’ pitches revolved around winning and losing as a team. Carr would just be a cog in the wheel of the organization, not the man who shouldered all the responsibility.

“It was always ‘us.’ It was always ‘team.’ It was never, ‘You have to do this, or you have to do that.’” Carr said. “It was like, the whole team mindset, top to bottom, ‘We’re all in this together. One fails, we all fail.’ A lot of people say that, but [don’t] really mean that. And so I could feel that difference here, and that’s what made me just say, ‘We’re all in this thing together. We’re going to go try and win.’”

Saints linebacker Demario Davis, who signed with the team in 2018 and almost immediately became a captain, said the team was able to give him the same pivotal pitch when he signed, and he wanted Carr to feel that way as well.

“We just want to give him a safe space to come in and be him,” Davis said. Carr could just focus on football again.

“They were like, ‘Trust me, just come here. We will help you get to where you need to go,’” Carr said. “It wasn’t like, ‘You’ve got to come in here and do it all.’ The whole team was like, ‘We just need you to come add your value.’ … That, to me, was cool.’”

Heather was the one who ultimately tipped the scales. Her first meeting with Saints owner Gayle Benson quickly made her realize this was all going to work out.

“When we sat down with Mrs. Benson — and she started to talk to us, and she was so kind — the way she was treating my wife and the questions she was asking, things like that, my wife [said], ‘How could you not want to play for someone like that?’” Carr said. “And so for us, I really think it was that meeting that sent it over the edge.”

After the Carrs finished their visit, Heather started looking up potential houses to live in New Orleans. Carr tried to caution her that he was going to take more visits, but Heather, smiling to herself, was undeterred.

“I know, I know,” she told him. “I’m letting you do your due diligence, but I just have a feeling we’re going to be here.”

CARR’S TRANSFORMATION INTO a Saints quarterback this offseason wasn’t instantaneous — kind of like his opening half where he was sacked four times and threw an interception.

Being the starting quarterback meant players would look to him as the leader, but he still had to earn it. Talking to his teammates on the phone was one thing, but forming real bonds would take time.

“He’s very comfortable now,” Saints quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry said. “… I can remember two or three weeks into the offseason having that conversation, ‘Don’t wait on them, you’ve got to go to them. When you’re QB1, everybody is looking at you. Be yourself and do what you’ve got to do.’”

Carr invited several of his teammates to Las Vegas so they could work out and get to know him and his family. It was that trip that allowed them to see him as Derek Carr the person instead of Derek Carr the quarterback.

“I felt like that was kind of the starting point of where we are now,” said wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, who scored the Saints’ lone touchdown in the third quarter against the Titans and helped seal the victory with a 41-yard reception in the fourth quarter. “I feel like we’ve grown so much since then, and that’s going to continue to build throughout the season.”

Carr and several other players commented over the summer about the intensity of training camp practices. Even though the offense didn’t always win, he’d come away excited about where that could lead.

“It has not been one-sided for a stretch of time. It has been back-and-forth, back-and-forth, play in and play out,” Carr said. “That right there, we’re having fun doing that, because we understand what that leads to. That leads to a good football team and hopefully a lot of wins.”

When Carr came home from practice one day late into camp, Heather immediately picked up on the energy.

“Our 24th, 23rd day of camp, and she was like, ‘You’re having so much fun again,’” Carr said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ I really enjoy this building. What they have created here is special.”

Heather said she could tell from the look on his face that something had changed.

“Derek is always going to be happy, he’s always going to be positive. I know that about him. That’s how he is,” Heather said. “But there was just something like … I would say a child-like excitement in him.”

Saints players held a vote prior to the team’s season opener and named Carr one of seven team captains for the season, something that he said “means the world to him.”

“Quite frankly, you leave a place, ‘Hey, they didn’t want you anymore’ and you step into a place where, ‘We want you, and … we want you as our captain.’ What that meant to me, meant everything,” Carr said. “I don’t say much, but when I do, I’m passionate. I told them in that moment what it meant to me … all I’ve wanted to do since I got here is earn the respect of my teammates.”

CARR’S 10TH SEASON in the NFL will represent the freedom he never thought he wanted in the first place.

If it were up to him, he would’ve been fine to play for the Raiders his entire career, staying within driving distance of his family and finishing his career where it started.

“I don’t think he would’ve ever left because he would’ve never walked out on his team,” Sheryl said. “He never would’ve given up on his team, he would’ve stayed with his players.”

Beyond the loyalty and the emotional ties to the Raiders, there were plenty of other reasons to stay. Derek was born and raised near the West Coast, where Darren now coaches football at Bakersfield Christian High School, Derek’s alma mater. Rodger and David are assistant coaches.

Even the move to Las Vegas didn’t deter Rodger from his tradition of attending every one of his son’s home games. That streak will be broken with the move to New Orleans.

Carr doesn’t deny the release from the Raiders stung.

“The first thing, of, ‘I’m not going to be the Raiders’ quarterback anymore,’ that hurt,” Carr said. “That’s all I wanted to do, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

“That was a business decision that they made, and I wish them the best of luck. Hopefully they will hear that and they will know that. I still root for the Raiders, you know? I just root for us more.”

But as he turns the page, Carr is confident, poised and ready to start with a blank slate in New Orleans.

“The most important thing was he wanted to have fun playing football again,” Curry said. “That’s a little bit our job. You have fun when you put together a good game plan, you come by, you execute and you win games. You have fun.

“Our job is to put him in the right situations so he can be himself. I think he’s in a good spot right now.”

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