Updated September 15, 2021 - 10:47 am
The voice in Darren Waller’s head told him to stay the course.
“You can talk yourself out of things,” he said. “So you just keep playing.”
I’m not sure anyone — including Waller and his Raiders teammates — still can really believe how a 33-27 overtime victory against the Ravens played out Monday night at Allegiant Stadium. Hollywood would insist it a fictional script.
But once the Space Mountain roller-coaster ride slowed to a stop and Zay Jones won it with a 31-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Derek Carr, evaluating the absurdity of it all began.
This part wasn’t imaginary: On his 29th birthday and against his former team, Waller had 10 catches from 19 targets for 105 yards and a score.
This part might be: At his postgame news conference, coach Jon Gruden said, “(Waller) is the best player I’ve ever coached.”
Waller’s targets were the most for any Raiders player since Jerry Rice had the same number in 2002.
It was at this point when most wondered how comedian Frank Caliendo had snuck into the new conference to offer his famed Gruden impression.
The real Gruden — both as an assistant and head coach — spent time tutoring Rice, along with several other Hall of Fame players. Charles Woodson. Tim Brown. Warren Sapp. John Lynch. Derrick Brooks. More and more.
You get the picture. Gruden’s comment on Waller had, at this point, a little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs element to it. The coach uttered his remarks with a noticeable smirk … but doesn’t he always?
It’s true Waller has elevated himself into the conversation as the NFL’s best tight end. He’s no longer a sidebar to the likes of Travis Kelce and George Kittle. He’s front and center with them. He also started slow Monday, like all the Raiders on offense.
It didn’t take an opening 15 minutes for most to wonder if Gruden’s decision to rest his starters for all three preseason games was overly astute. The Raiders trailed 14-0 and appeared rusty beyond reason.
“Some choppy waters,” Gruden said.
Looked more like a tsunami at times.
But games continue. Things change. Carr eventually found a consistent rhythm and off went an offense that ran 80 plays and amassed 491 yards.
“I think it’s more of a mindset,” said Waller, whose scoring catch with 3:44 left in regulation helped the Raiders tie things at 24-24. “We can move the ball at will and our tempo can dictate whenever we really want. Things just started clicking.
“No matter how the first half ended (Baltimore led 14-10), it was a one-score game and we were going to be in it until the end.”
The Raiders next meet the Steelers in Pittsburgh, where coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday smiled while refusing to divulge even one detail as to how his team would defend Waller.
It’s certainly a massive challenge for anyone right now. Even when teams are intent on slowing him — the Ravens at times offered bracket coverage on Waller — he and Carr somehow connect more times than not.
It’s a beginning to what should be a third straight highly productive season for Waller, who has managed consecutive 1,100-plus yard seasons and a Pro Bowl appearance. It’s easy to get caught up in his skill level. Just not yet to the degree of Gruden.
I have a wonderful job. But so, too, would be working as an agent for Klutch Sports in its football division. Waller recently signed with the agency.
You can bet those now representing him will save a copy of the video with Gruden’s over-the-top compliment on the tight end. Waller is committed to the Raiders through 2023.
You can safely add a few more zeroes to that next extension.
Hey, Gruden always has an out.
He can blame Caliendo.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.