Jack Dempsey / Associated Press
Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 | 8:29 p.m.
Social distancing represented a difficult challenge for Darren Waller Sunday evening in Denver and shouldn’t get any easier once he’s back in Las Vegas. Everyone wants to congratulate him.
The Raiders tight end hit the early pinnacle of his career in the season finale against the Broncos. The 28-year-old surpassed Hall of Famer Tim Brown to set the franchise record for receptions in a season with 107 and caught the game-winning two-point conversion in a 32-31 victory.
Waller welcomes all the plaudits coming his way, but they do make him a little uneasy — and not for fear of violating any NFL protocols.
“I’m definitely grateful for this moment but I don’t want this to be my greatest day as a Raider,” Waller said after the game. “I want us to keep going and I want our team to have great days as well.”
The Raiders officially ended their first year in Las Vegas with an 8-8 record, going out on a high but also while grappling with the finality of a season that didn’t last as long as they had hoped. The franchise held a steadfast goal to reach the playoffs, one that it looked likely to accomplish when it sat with a 6-3 record, but a rough final month-and-a-half killed those aspirations
Back-to-back collapses in the last two weeks to officially eliminate Las Vegas were particularly galling, which is why doing the inverse at Empower Field at Mile High and winning at the end felt so invigorating. Waller’s catch in traffic followed a brawny 1-yard touchdown run from running back Josh Jacobs with 24 seconds remaining and sparked a celebration the Raiders hadn’t seen since their stunning comeback against the Jets in early December.
“I wish I could go out there and get another one but the season ends and I’m just grateful for the ups and downs and the learning experience this year came with,” receiver Bryan Edwards said. “I’m going to be prepared for next year.”
The Raiders are treating the victory like it’s as much of a precursor to the 2021-2022 season as a conclusion to the 2020-2021 campaign. A lot went wrong against Las Vegas in Denver, most notably including a -4 turnover margin with two lost fumbles and two interceptions
NFL teams have historically lost more than 95 percent of the time with that large of a disparity but the Raiders fought through adversity and twice overcame deficits against the Broncos. The experience, both in this game and this season, inspired quarterback and team captain Derek Carr's message going into next season.
He’s already previewing the tone of his weekly news conferences starting this summer and dispensing interior-decorating advice for the team’s headquarters in Henderson.
“I can almost guarantee you from here on out, you’re going to hear me talk about ‘finish, finish, finish,’” he said. “And Coach (Jon) Gruden is going to put it up in the facility. We’re going to finish practice. We’re going to finish everything we do. It has to be a point of emphasis for us.”
Waller — who had nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown — and Jacobs — 15 carries for 89 yards and two touchdowns — will get most of the credit for the season-ending win, but Carr put it in motion and practiced what he’s now preaching. The veteran might have made his worst throw of the year at the start of the fourth quarter on his second interception in three drives.
Carr didn’t see Denver cornerback Kareem Jackson lurking over the middle in Las Vegas territory, put the ball right in his hands and appeared to briefly argue with Gruden about it afterwards. But the defense, led by big games from linebackers Nicholas Morrow and Cory Littleton, uncharacteristically held and forced a three-and-out.
Carr completed 10 of 13 passes the rest of the way including long balls to Waller, Edwards and Zay Jones to bring the Raiders back. He finished with 371 yards on 24-for-38 passing, allowing him to become the first quarterback in team history to put up a pair of 4,000-yard seasons — and Carr’s came in back-to-back campaigns.
“We had some really great moments today, we had some ugly moments” Gruden said. “Like we always seem to do this year, we hang in there. Our defenses gets us a stop and our quarterback is as good as anybody I’ve ever been around in those situations. He loves the two-minute drill.”
“There were some positive things that happened this season and I’m going to enjoy the moment.”
In addition to identifying Carr, Waller and Jacobs, Gruden pinpointed praise on kicker Daniel Carlson who’s one field goal and four extra points on Sunday allowed him to pass Sebastian Janikowski for the franchise record for points in a season (144). He also celebrated the fact that the Raiders did exactly what they couldn’t do last year in converting a two-point conversion in the final seconds on the road against the Broncos to get to .500.
For the second straight year, Gruden defended the lack of a playoff berth by referencing overall improvement with the Raiders’ win total having now gone from four to seven to eight in his three years at the helm. Las Vegas also lost three games by less than a touchdown this season — though they won four — and Gruden couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if a couple flipped the other way.
“We battled our brains out as hard as we could,” Gruden said. “We’re really a couple plays away from winning every game in our division. We made some progress. We still have some long strides to make but I’m really proud of our team.”
A number of young players had moments against the Broncos to give the Raiders excitement for their futures including the rookie Edwards who had two catches for 51 yards and the first touchdown of his career in the second quarter. Second-year defensive end Maxx Crosby blocked two Brandon McManus field goals — something he said he had never done once before in his football career — including a desperation 63-yard potential game-winning attempt with seconds remaining.
The Raiders have many of the personnel pieces they need to get better and chase the playoffs again next year but, it might come down to something more.
It might come down to mindset. It might come down to finishing.
“In my head, I’m already thinking about next year and what can I do to take that next leap,” Jacobs said. “I’m not satisfied with how I did this year and how the team did. The playoffs was definitely my goal, to at least have a winning record. For me, it’s how do I get the guys motivated and how do I get myself ready to take that leap?”