OAKLAND -- Rich Gannon said it brought a smile to his face when the Raiders clinched their first winning season in 14 years last Sunday. Gannon has fond memories of that 2002 season, when he was named the league MVP and led Oakland to the Super Bowl.
"It did," he said by phone Friday. "And you know why? Because I know some of the people out there. I played with Jack Del Rio. I've got great respect for him, and I know it's been a tedious journey.
"It's hard if you don't have that franchise quarterback, and they have one."
Gannon, who is a commentator for CBS Sports and Sirius radio, knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. He played 18 years in the NFL. Before the 2014 draft, he studied the top prospects and felt Derek Carr was the best of the bunch.
"As far as throwing the ball, I don't think there was anyone better in the class," Gannon said.
He wasn't alone. Jon Gruden, the quarterback guru and Gannon's former coach in Oakland, called Carr a "superstar" after working him out. Greg Gabriel, a long-time NFL scout and Buffalo native, said before the draft that Carr should be the first quarterback selected.
But as is often the case, teams dwelled on Carr's perceived negatives. He had small hands. He forced throws. His college stats were inflated by playing in a spread offense against inferior opponents at Fresno State. He lasted until the 36th pick of the 2014 draft, the fourth quarterback off the board.
"One thing that stuck out is how people were so interested in comparing him to his brother," Gannon said, "and they're really different players."
Carr's older brother, David, was the first overall pick of the '02 draft with the expansion Texans. David never came close to justifying the pick, though he was compromised by a horrible offensive line and dubious supporting cast.
In fact, Derek Carr was different from his brother; he was a more gifted athlete and passer. And in his third NFL season, he is living up to Gruden's glowing pre-draft characterization. He is approaching superstar status.
The Raiders were expected to contend after going 7-9 a year ago. But Carr has led them farther than most people imagined. They enter Sunday's game against the Bills with a 9-2 record, atop the AFC West and tied with the Patriots for the best record in the conference. They've won five in a row, averaging 31 points. They've beaten both of last year's Super Bowl teams -- Carolina and Denver -- this season.
They have done it despite a defense that's ranked 29th overall and last in yards per play against. Imagine where they'd be without Khalil Mack. Carr has led them to narrow shootout wins, including 35-34 over Drew Brees and the Saints, 34-31 over Philip Rivers and the Chargers, and 35-32 last week against Cam Newton and the defending NFC champion Panthers.
Carr threw for 513 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-24 overtime win over Tampa Bay. He has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,115 yards. He has 22 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. Carr is the least-sacked QB in the league, a testament to his terrific offensive line and his remarkably quick release.
So we're not talking about some game manager here. Carr has five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, nine in his career. He has the top fourth-quarter passing rating in the NFL at 121.3. He has thrown for 946 yards in the fourth quarter. By comparison, the Bills' Tyrod Taylor has passed for 422 yards in the fourth quarter.
Carr is on pace to throw for 4,530 yards, just shy of the Raiders franchiserecord of 4,689, set by -- you guessed it -- Rich Gannon back in that magical 2002 year, when Oakland led the NFL in passing yards.
"The kid's a really talented player," Gannon said. "He throws the ball well. He's got better movement than you think, and he's got great accuracy, great touch on the ball. He can change speeds and there's really not a weakness when you see him throw the football.
"The thing that really jumps out to me is his ability, especially in the gun, to get the ball out so quickly. He's not as fast as Aaron Rodgers. No one in the league is. But this kid is probably a close second. He can catch the ball and flick it, like instantaneously. He's got a really quick release."
Carr will likely be in the shotgun a lot Sunday, having dislocated the pinky on his throwing hand taking a snap under center last week. He left early in the third quarter with the Raiders leading, 24-7. When he returned 8:47 later, they were trailing, 25-24.
Back he came, with a glove on his right hand, and led Oakland to another fourth-quarter comeback win. It created impetus for Carr as a candidate for league MVP, the Raiders' first since Gannon and second since Marcus Allen in 1985. Is it justified?
"Oh, I think so," Gannon said. "I'm reluctant to talk about it with five weeks left. But they're guaranteed a winning season for the first time since I was there in '02, and he's a big reason why. He's really the ringleader out there and he makes it all happen. There were games when they were struggling defensively, especially in the first half of the season, where he just carried this team on his back."
The contrasts with the Taylor are inescapable. The Bills don't expect Taylor to bail them out with 300-yard passing days. They win by running the ball, avoiding turnovers and getting the occasional big throw. Taylor is not asked to win shootouts. The Bills haven't won a game this year against a quarterback currently rated above 19th in the NFL. Last year, they didn't beat a QB who finished in the top 16.
"Tyrod is probably more of a system guy," Gannone said." I don't know if he's ever going to be a pure drop-back guy and throw for 4,000 yards. I think he's developing, but he has work to do in the pocket. He's a much better thrower of the football when he's on the move.
"He's got to sit in there and quiet the feet and stay in rhythm and read the entire field."
The Bills remain unsure about Taylor as a franchise quarterback. There are no doubts about Carr, only lingering regret on the part of teams that passed on him in the draft and are still searching. If you've forgotten, Blake Bortles (third overall), Johnny Manziel (22) and Teddy Bridgewater (32) went before him.
"You tell me if you could do it all over again, who would all these teams take?" Gannon said. "It's not even close, in my opinion."