A ‘rejuvenated’ Derek Carr looks right at home in Saints’ debut

NEW ORLEANS — More than half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks got the opening preseason weekend off, not even playing a snap in what is seen by some as a meaningless game, but Derek Carr is grateful he wasn’t among them.

Carr is entering his 10th NFL season, but Sunday was his first time playing for the Saints in his new home stadium, so he relished an exciting preview of what is to come for him this fall.

“When I woke up this morning, everything was new to me,” Carr said on the podium after a wild 26-24 Saints’ win over the Chiefs. “Where’s the pregame meal? … I don’t know where to go to park … Where’s the shower? Where’s the snacks? All that stuff. Everything was new. So for me to get out there and, more importantly, play football … it was important for me to do that. It doesn’t matter how old I am or how many years I’ve played in the NFL.”

Carr had heard a story about Saints legend Drew Brees getting lost on the way to his first game, so he had a plan, finding center Erik McCoy in the team hotel parking lot and following him as they drove to the Caesar’s Superdome, all the way to his exact parking spot. He had the thrill of the stadium going dark for pregame introductions, and just as the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes did, Carr was out there on the field for his team’s first snaps of the 2023 season.

He missed his first pass, but was impressively sharp, going 6-for-8 for 70 yards on his only drive. He converted a third-and-8 with a throw to tight end Juwan Johnson, connected with new targets like running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas, then found receiver Keith Kirkwood for a 4-yard touchdown, hearing just how loud his new fans can be when it’s all going right.

“I thought he was in control, poised,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “He threw it to the open guy, kind of the way you would want your quarterback to operate the offense. … I thought overall it was a good experience.”

With a few injury-related exceptions, the Saints played just about all their starters, a rarity in today’s risk-averse NFL preseason, and Carr said he thinks that says something about a team that has worked hard this summer to become a closer group.

“To do it with a new group, all new receivers, for everyone to be in there and playing, I think is a mark of this team,” he said. “Any chance we can get to out there and coach will let us, we just want to compete and play.”

Carr spent his first nine NFL seasons with the Raiders, moving with the franchise from Oakland to Las Vegas, but this offseason has been a major adjustment for him and his family. Putting on the black-and-gold jersey instead of the black-and-silver was jarring as he looked in a mirror before the game. Rookie quarterback Jake Haener, who played at Fresno State like Carr, said “that looks weird.”

“I know, bro! I’ve been in the same place for nine years!” Carr told his teammate. “It may look weird, but it felt right.”

Getting a fresh start at 32 is something Carr wanted, and before he’s played a real game, he feels good about the Saints as a match for him. He has thrown for more than 35,000 yards in the NFL, but made the playoffs only once and lost in that game; New Orleans hopes to get back in the postseason for the first time since Brees’ retirement after the 2020 season.

“I told DA (Allen) this week I just felt refreshed, felt rejuvenated,” Carr said. “To put that uniform on, to come out and be a Saint, it felt really good.”

His family too is adjusting to their new home — Carr said his daughter, Brooklyn Mae, almost 3, still says “Touchdown Raiders!” out of sheer habit (“We’ll work on that,” he says). 

Preseason games are rarely about scores or outcomes — the Saints scored on their first three drives for a 17-0 lead, then saw the Chiefs’ backups counter with 24 straight points. Down seven, Haener drove the Saints 76 yards for a touchdown with 1:25 left, only to have the go-ahead two-point conversion fail when the snap came early and hit him in the chest.

WIth the Saints out of timeouts, the Chiefs could have run the ball on third down and run the clock down to punt with 20 seconds left, but they not only threw the ball, but got intercepted by Saints defensive lineman Kyle Phillips. That set up a game-winning field goal as time expired by rookie kicker Blake Grupe — tiny by NFL standards at 5-foot-7 and 156 pounds — for a win that means nothing, but was celebrated by the entire team.

“Especially the way we won, I think it’s only a good thing,” Carr said. “Like DA said, whether it’s regular season or preseason, we don’t care. If we’re strapping it on, you’re not going out there to lose and be OK with it. We’re going out there to win, and we were happy we were able to do that.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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