HENDERSON, Nev. — Darren Waller, who walks a daily journey with his sobriety, has a similar game plan when it comes to football.
No, this is not to trivialize addiction. Nor is it to needlessly dramatize a game. It’s just, well, let the Las Vegas Raiders‘ tight end tell it.
“I just try to live one day at a time, make one play at a time, and then stuff like that kind of adds up,” Waller said after his career game Sunday against the New York Jets, a 31-28 last-second victory as improbable as it was necessary for the Raiders’ playoff hopes.
• Colts rookie gets a kick out of Lego sets
• Aaron Rodgers’ first job: Find Favre
• Christian McCaffrey comes ‘full circle’
• Corey Davis playing way to second deal?
• Broncos’ MVP? ‘Tough guy’ close to 1K yards
“I’m just trying to show up and be as consistent as possible on each and every play, and the results can take care of themselves. But as long as I’m locked in and focused and doing what I need to do, being of service to my teammates, that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Indeed, without Waller’s career-best 13 catches for a career-high 200 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, the Raiders would not have been in position to pull off the miracle finish, with Derek Carr hitting Henry Ruggs III for a game-winning 46-yarder with five seconds to play.
Certainly not without Waller’s clutch, 15-yard pickup three snaps earlier to get the Raiders beyond midfield. And definitely not without his chip block of linebacker Jordan Jenkins on the Jets’ all-out blitz that allowed Carr to step up in the pocket and unleash the deep ball to Ruggs.
“Darren Waller,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said a day later, “was magnificent.”
Consider: Waller’s 200 receiving yards are the fourth most in Raiders franchise history, behind the 247 yards Art Powell had against the Houston Oilers on Dec. 22, 1963, the 210 yards Amari Cooper had against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 19, 2017, and the 206 yards Powell had against the Boston Patriots on Oct. 8, 1965. Waller is, of course, the only tight end with a 200-yard receiving game as a Raider.
It was Waller’s third career 10-catch, 100-yard receiving game, and only Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown (13), tight end Todd Christensen (four) and Cooper (four) have authored more such games in Raiders history.
Waller now has seven career 100-yard receiving games, second in franchise history among tight ends behind Christensen, who had 14 (Jared Cook and Hall of Famer Dave Casper had six each).
Against the Jets, Waller saw “a lot” of man-to-man coverage, and Gruden and Carr champed at the bit.
“Yeah, and you know how it is in a game, you feel a guy heating up,” Carr said. “He’s winning on all his routes, he’s making contested catches, he’s breaking tackles. Obviously, we threw a little hitch, and he took it to the house. The man’s feeling it that day, you know. It’s nice to throw those 5-yard passes that go for touchdowns, for those that aren’t fans of the West Coast Offense.
“When someone’s heating up like that, Coach just keeps calling his number. He’s like, ‘Do you like this? Do you like that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ … Waller was the No. 1 [option] in some progressions, and he kept winning. So I tip my hat to Coach for continuing to call his number and tip my hat to Darren for continuing to win. It’s not easy to do in this league, obviously — not only games, but one-on-ones. It’s not easy.”
Waller, who just marked his third year of sobriety, said consistency, both on and off the field, is key.
“We know how special he is,” Carr said. “He’s even more special of a person. I think that’s why I just love playing with him so much. I love throwing him the ball. I love competing with him, taking the field with him every time. I look in his eyes, and I know he’s ready.
“Two hundred yards as a tight end on 13 catches? That’s just ridiculous. That’s video-game stuff. He’s a special talent, and I’m thankful I get to be his quarterback. It will be something I can get to tell my kids about.”
Imagine how big a story it would be, then, if it included a playoff run? We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but at the season’s quarter pole, the Raiders control their destiny.
At 7-5, they are on the outside looking in at the moment, but they face two 8-4 teams that they are chasing in the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins. Las Vegas plays host to the Colts on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
“You don’t accomplish those kinds of things without taking it one game at a time,” said Waller, who has 77 catches for 742 yards this season and has more than doubled his TDs, with seven. (He had three scores among his 90 catches for 1,145 yards in 2019.)
“You look forward to the postseason, and of course, that’s on the wall. That’s what we’re trying to do. But it takes individual steps to get there. So we’re just trying to keep it as simple as possible.”
A simple yet sound philosophy, indeed.