The Mercury News Weekend
Legendary receiver Tim Brown has high praise for TE Waller
Ex-star WR says tight end can be ‘one of the best to ever play this game’
Darren Waller was riding an exercise bike, getting warmed up for the second half of the last game played at the Coliseum when a couple of Raiders legends approached.
It was Tim Brown and Marcus A llen, telling Waller to keep up the good work.
“I don’t know if they know how much it meant to me right then,” Waller said Thursday in a video conference. “To even be mentioned with ( Brown) is pretty crazy.”
Waller’s meteoric rise has him on the short list along with Travis Kelce and George Kittle as the best tight ends in the NFL. Brown took it even further as he pondered seeing his franchise record of 104 receptions fall by the wayside should Waller catch seven passes Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
“I think he’s still wet behind the ears,” Brown said in a phone interview this week. “I don’t think he understands how dominant he is. I think once he does, he’s going to be one of the best to ever play this game, without a doubt.”
The Raiders (7- 8) may have faded, but Waller is picking up steam, averaging just fewer than nine catches and more than 134 yards receiving in his past four games. Waller (98 receptions, 1,079 yards, eight TDs) has taken dead aim on a record coach Jon Gruden “didn’t think would ever be broken.”
Waller’s story is wellchronicled. He was spotted by offensive coordinator Greg Olson in a pregame workout before the Raiders played the Baltimore Ravens in 2018.
Waller was in his first year of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction after multiple NFL suspensions. He’d gone from stocking shelves in a grocery store to the Ravens’ practice squad to a spot on the Raiders. The rest has been history in the making.
Brown, 54, figured his record was in jeopardy when Gruden returned to the sideline in 2018. The offensive system is complicated but beneficial for receivers that can master it before Gruden loses his patience.
“I certainly expected when Gruden came back and he had Amari Cooper that the record would be broken,” Brown said. “But I can honestly tell you that I never imagined it would be a tight end that was going to break this record.”
Waller, with precious little experience, has grasped the system and flourished in a way that evaded Cooper. A first-time Pro Bowl selection, he’s listed as a tight end and has taken pride in his blocking, something that didn’t come naturally. But his strength is as a multi-faceted weapon who can be deployed in-line but also flexed as a wideout to either side, in the slot or even in the backfield. Waller is doing things John Madden never envisioned with Dave Casper or Tom Flores with Todd Christensen.
Br ow n , a sel f- pr o - claimed football junkie, had played under Mike Shanahan, Art Shell, Mike White and Joe Bugel before Gruden arrived in 1998. It was under Bugel and with Jeff George at quarterback where Brown had his record-setting season — 104 receptions, 1,408 yards — but it was under Gruden where he immersed himself in a system and obsessed over every nuance and detail.
Brown can see the 6-foot- 6, 255-pound Waller mirroring concepts he ran himself at 6-foot and 190 pounds.
“He’s running some of the same routes I used to run,” Brown said.
Brown was a polished veteran of 32 when Gruden arrived while Waller was 26 and raw, a former wide receiver at Georgia Tech who in his more lucid moments aspired to be the next Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. Their backgrounds are nothing alike, yet Gruden sees similarities in terms of dedication and approach.
“I think there is a common ground there with greatness,” Gruden said. “T hey ’ re your hardest workers. They take care of themselves off the field and they have so many intangibles you don’t have time to list them. Waller, he’s got the Tim Brown Hall of Fame work ethic, concentration, focus and desire and he has the right attitude every day.
“He’s a premiere compet it or in the walk
throughs, in the meetings and on the field, and that’s why he’s standing where he is today as one of the best.”
T he platitudes from the likes of Gruden and Brown are hard for Waller to fathom considering the road he traveled.
“I look at their football pedigree and those guys know what they’re talking about, so I appreciate it when it comes from them,” Waller said. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around the whole experience from 2018 until now. I try to stay present in the moment, continue to improve and try to learn something and not think I know everything just because I put some up some decent numbers now and then.”
Raiders veteran tight end Jason Witten, who as of Sunday will have played more games at the position than anyone in the history of the NFL and could join Brown in the Hall of Fame, appreciates Waller’s approach.
“Coach Gruden asks him to play a lot of different positions and there’s a lot of volume to this offense,” Witten said. “You’ve got to have a real firm grip. You look at who he is as a person and what he’s been able to overcome in his life, that’s where it starts with me.”
Brown said the offense presents a never- ending quest for improvement with the smallest details being crucial.
“He can be more precise with his route-running,”
Brown said. “I know that offense pretty well. I know on a crossing route you’re supposed to be in a certain spot. This is not a criticism at all because in that offense, I felt every year I was trying to get better, right? He’s at such a high level now he’s looking for little things on film. He’s got everything else.”
Brown is fairly certain Waller will break his record, figuring Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr will see to it early. He says Waller could take it even further in future years, approaching 120 or 130 catches.
“I’m excited for the young man,” Brown said. “They said records are made to be broken. I guess in some way I still have the record because he’ll have the tight end record and I’ll have the wide receiver record.”
Waller is under contract through 2023 after a three-year, $27.3 million contract extension signed more than a year ago when the Raiders realized they’d stumbled upon something special.
A bargain as it turned out, and remarkable in that Waller wondered before the Raiders signed him if he was ever going to get another chance.
“I did not see this coming,” he said. “It was Week 11 or Week 12, I was kind of down, wondering if anything would come from this. I might wind up back at Sprouts or back home, working trying to figure something out. I’m definitely grateful.”