Darren Waller, Josh Jacobs vibrant foundation pieces in bleak end to Raiders season

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Yeah, Jon Gruden was still upset Monday afternoon, some 41 hours after the Las Vegas Raiders lost a game thanks to what he called "the most horrific play I've ever been associated with" in his coaching career.

This from a guy who was on the wrong side of history when the Tuck Rule was unveiled on a snowy New England night in 2002.

But we digress ... Damon Arnette letting Miami Dolphins receiver Mack Hollins run right by him unimpeded down the left sideline and safety Isaiah Johnson arriving oh-so-late on a predictable deep throw is the gaping open wound. Arden Key gruesomely grabbing and twisting Ryan Fitzpatrick's facemask as he threw that no-look bomb is the salt. Especially when you add the 15 yards from Key's penalty to Fitzpatrick's 34-yard completion and, suddenly, after taking a two-point lead with 19 seconds to play, the Raiders had gifted the Dolphins 49 yards and put them in field-goal range.

"You've got 19 seconds left and [Miami has] no timeouts at the minus 25-yard line and for us to not get off the field with a victory is, it's a shame, it's a disgrace and it's a reflection of me only," Gruden grumbled in his weekly virtual media conference Monday. "We've got to do a lot better job than that."

Indeed, Jason Sanders' 44-yard field goal with one second to play gave Miami an improbable 26-25 victory and the Raiders their fifth loss in six games, each more excruciating than the previous.

"We played well enough to win that football game," Gruden added. "It goes down to one lousy play and it still sticks in my gut the wrong way right now."

Yeah, Gruden was disturbed. Still.

Really, the only time his mood lightened was when he was asked about foundational pieces in general, two guys on offense in particular. And Gruden almost smiled.


'Two great building blocks'

Darren Waller is having a season for the ages at tight end, and Josh Jacobs' mentor Marcus Allen has to be proud of Jacobs' sophomore season.

Both Waller and Jacobs were named to the Pro Bowl last week, even if no such all-star game will be played due to the pandemic.

No matter. As Gruden acknowledged, they are foundation pieces on which to build ... even with a second straight late-season collapse and a third non-winning season in as many years for the Raiders (7-8) since Gruden returned in 2018.

"Oh, they're great," Gruden said of the duo.

"But to go back to the Waller point, here's a man that's on the verge of potentially breaking Tim Brown's record, one I thought never would be broken. What kind of person he is, what kind of practice work ethic that he puts forth. And Josh Jacobs, those are two great building blocks."

And then some.

Waller, who has 98 catches for 1,079 yards and eight touchdowns, is seven catches away from surpassing Hall of Famer Brown's single-season franchise record of 104 receptions, set in 1997. That exceeds his 90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three scores in 2019.

"It's pretty unbelievable," Waller said after being named to the Pro Bowl. "Honestly, I never really thought anything like this would happen. Ever. This was never, like, my goal. I never really had big goals or anything. But just to be here today is really a blessing."

In fact, Waller, a recovering addict who has been sober for more than three years, said he was merely reflecting on life and everything he had been through off the field when being feted for his on-field contributions.

"I just welcome the competition," he said, "and not worry about results, or what may happen, what may not happen."

No more "paralysis by analysis," said Waller, a sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2015 who was suspended the entire 2017 season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy before the Raiders signed him off the Ravens' practice squad on Nov. 27, 2018.

In Jacobs, a first-round pick of the Raiders in 2019 via a selection garnered in the Khalil Mack trade, Las Vegas has a bellcow back. Even if he had never been the No. 1 guy in college.

And while he might not have endured the classic sophomore slump this season, the Alabama product is averaging one fewer yard per carry than he did as a rookie -- 4.8 yards to 3.8 -- even though he has three more touchdowns -- 10 to 7.

"I always feel like I should get the ball," Jacobs said with a sly grin after the Raiders fell to the Los Angeles Chargers in overtime Dec. 17, when he carried the ball 26 times for 76 yards and a TD. "That's just my mentality. Especially when the game is on the line. I always feel like I should get the ball. But, I mean, at the end of the day, I trust in the coach's gameplan."

A fractured right shoulder forced Jacobs to miss three of his final four games last season, when he rushed for 1,150 yards. A sprained right ankle cost him one game this season and he needs 24 yards in Sunday's finale at the Denver Broncos for a second-consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. He would become just the third Raiders player to author consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, joining Mark van Eeghen (1976-78) and Allen (1983-85).

In fact, Jacobs is only the third Raiders running back named to the Pro Bowl since Allen in 1987, following Bo Jackson in 1990 and Latavius Murray in 2015.

"We are more of an old-school team, definitely a run-first team," Waller said. "We like to build off of that with play-action and the vertical passing game, so Josh sets the tone for us offensively."

Still, Waller has been unstoppable lately, with 34 catches for 537 yards and three TDs in his last four games.

"I guess we do things a little bit different than most other teams, but that's what makes us who we are and we like playing that style," Waller said. "We just try to be a physical team and win in the middle and then try to win on the outside as well.”

Waller and Jacobs both played starring roles in the heartbreaking loss to the Dolphins, the tight end catching five passes for 112 yards and an ill Jacobs averaging 5.3 yards per carry in rushing for 69 yards.

In fact, it was Jacobs who essentially downed himself at the Miami 1-yard line with 1:50 left in regulation. And that's where things got, well, weird.

"Yeah, I have a regret, because we lost the game on the most horrific play I've ever been associated with," Gruden said. "We study analytics; people don't think we study analytics. The analytics say that was a great move [to kick the field goal]. That's why analytics don’t know anything either.

"But no, I'm just kidding. No. No, I don't have any regrets."

Gruden does have foundational pieces for the future in Waller and Jacobs, though. And he's not kidding about those guys.