HENDERSON, Nev. — Third-and-Renfrow? Third-and-Renfrow.
Indeed, it is more than a catchphrase when it comes to Las Vegas Raiders second-year receiver Hunter Renfrow and his productivity for quarterback Derek Carr on that crucial down. It has become, well, a way of life.
And it reminds Carr of a conversation with Renfrow’s college coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney.
“Dabo told me, ‘There’s something about it, when it’s third down, the cape comes on and [Renfrow’s] just a different person,'” Carr recalled.
“And it’s true. Dabo’s known him longer than I’ve known him, but Hunter and I are really close and I’m starting to see that about him.”
With the Raiders (7-6) clinging to their playoff lives ahead of Thursday night’s game against the rival Los Angeles Chargers (4-9) at Allegiant Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network), they might very well need the diminutive Renfrow, who more resembles a Google intern (yeah, we have pictures of his visit to the tech giant’s HQ as a draftee) than a musclebound superhero, to fly in for the save.
— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) June 14, 2019
Consider: The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Renfrow’s best game in his nascent career came at the Chargers last Dec. 22, when he caught seven passes on nine targets for 107 yards and a 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown. It was his first game back after suffering a broken rib and punctured lung at the New York Jets in Week 12. In three career games against the Chargers, Renfrow has combined for 13 catches on 17 targets for 209 yards and a TD.
But as the catchphrase suggests, Renfrow does his best work on third down. While 15 of his 47 catches have come on third down this season, 13 of those 15 catches have resulted in a first down.
“It’s definitely a credit to the way we control the tempo, the way we control the offense,” Renfrow said recently. “How efficient we are. I think I get more credit than I deserve. Because a lot of the times, it’s third-and-2, you know, because our offense does such a good job of moving the ball, being efficient, being able to run the ball and getting those short yardages so it’s not a third-and-10, third-and-11.”
But per ESPN Stats & Information, the average distance to go on his third-down catches that have resulted in a first down this season has been 6.6 yards.
“So, I definitely think that’s a cool, cool kinda little catchphrase, but it’s not deserving at times because of how our offense plays and what a good job everybody does,” Renfrow said. “Not just me.”
Renfrow has been consistent.
In 13 games last season, Renfrow had 49 catches for 605 yards (12.3 yards per catch) and four TDs with 30 first downs.
In 13 games thus far this season, he has 47 catches for 594 yards (12.6) and two TDs with 29 first downs.
“He’s got great balance, great understanding, again, he’s got a great understanding of defensive football,” Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said of Renfrow. “He’s a former quarterback, former high school quarterback and a coach’s son. That helps him in understanding where the holes are in the zone. But also, he’s just got great body balance and body position in his route running, and he works at it. It’s a credit to him for his work ethic and overall knowledge of the game.”
And those hands.
Renfrow has just two drops this season, none on third down. He has had only two fumbles in his career, again, none on third down.
Which is why it was so stunning to see him leave one on the ground with more than nine minutes to play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. (It was the first fumble he has lost, and it came on … first down.)
“First, my heart broke for him because … the guy tries to do everything right,” Carr said. “If we’re in a ball-security drill, he’s doing it all the right way. When he catches a ball in practice, he’s doing it all the right way. It’s one of those things, in life and football, it happens.
“So you feel for him because he tries to do it all right all the time. And it’s still eating him up. He’s still mad about it. He still wants to prove a point.”
As the undersized wideout has been doing his entire career. Before it, even, as Renfrow arrived at Clemson in 2014 as a walk-on and was the recipient of Deshaun Watson‘s winning touchdown pass with one second left in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship to lead Clemson past Alabama.
It gave Carr another flashback, this one of another Raiders receiver he looked for on third down a few years back — Seth Roberts.
“I was chucking it to him down the middle,” Carr said. “I look at Hunter the same way — I just trust the heck out of him.”
The respect, though, does not translate when they’re competing against each other on the golf course.
“It kind of makes me mad because when he needs to hit the shot, he actually makes it, doesn’t shank it,” Carr said. “So hopefully, I can get him to shank a couple.”
Just not on the football field. And definitely not on third down.