Move over, Jerry Rice! Jon Gruden says Darren Waller is the best player he's coached

·4-min read

Jon Gruden first started coaching in the NFL as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers in 1990, the year Jerry Rice led the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns. Rice had a five-TD game that season with Gruden watching.

Gruden eventually spent time coaching Brett Favre, Reggie White and Sterling Sharpe in Green Bay. Later, Gruden would coach Rice again, Brian Dawkins, Charles Woodson, Tim Brown, Rich Gannon, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Simeon Rice and, at least for one offseason, Khalil Mack.

None of those players — among them, multiple Pro Football Hall of Famers — is the best player Gruden ever coached, however. At least that's what he said after Monday night's bananas overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

That honor, it turns out, belongs to Darren Waller.

“We threw it 60 times, and if you threw it 60 times you would probably target him 29 times,” Gruden said. “He’s the best player I have ever coached, so I am going to continue to look for him.”

When Gruden delivered the line, it came with his patented smirk. So was he being real when he said it?

At the risk of accusing Gruden of being a prisoner of the moment, Waller was pretty special Monday. He hauled in 10 catches for 105 yards and a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, at times looking like the only target who QB Derek Carr explicitly trusted in key situations. 

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller is the best player Jon Gruden has ever coached, Gruden said Monday. (Jeff Bottari/AP Images for NFL)
Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller is the best player Jon Gruden has ever coached, Gruden said Monday. (Jeff Bottari/AP Images for NFL)

Gruden's fuzzy math aside — the Raiders threw 56 passes, and Waller was targeted on 19 of them — the point stands. Yes, the Raiders were forced to look for Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones at critical junctures of the game, needing to rely on that trio to help them pull off a wild win.

But Carr threw seven of his first 10 passes Waller's way, and even though only one of them resulted in a catch, there was no doubt that the tight end was going to see plenty more action throughout the course of the evening. Not a bad way for Waller to spend his 29th birthday.

No shade on Darren Waller, but ... really?

Waller's unlikely success story has been well-told in recent years. He was a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2015 but ran afoul of the league's substance-abuse regulations, earning multiple suspensions and appearing to be on his way of flaming out of the NFL. 

Gruden and the Raiders provided Waller a second chance at a career, and Waller overcame a lot of his own personal demons. Now he's become one of the league's most dominant pass catchers at the position — or at any position. 

But the best player Gruden has ever coached? All respect due, we might call a procedure penalty on this one. (And Gruden should be all too familiar with that brand of flag, having seen his team earn quite a few of them in the game.)

Perhaps by the end of his time in the NFL, Waller really is considered a special, generational and transcendent player. He's on his way, we believe. But Rice arguably holds the mantle of G.O.A.T. — at any position — and there are others on Gruden's all-time roster who were among the NFL's truly elite, relative to any era.

This likely can be chalked up to Gruden's occasional penchant for, well, exaggerating. He's said a few dubious things over the years, so it's nothing new, really. The media who have covered him for years might not even have batted an eye at his Waller comment from Monday.

Again, this isn't meant to slander Waller, who has turned into a true mismatch weapon and a dominant player. But let's hold our horses just a tad, shall we? Or at least have the proper perspective.

We expect Gruden's phone to be chock full Tuesday morning with texts. Many, we assume, will be from well-wishers congratulating him for a dramatic overtime victory over a quality opponent to open the Raiders' gorgeous new stadium. 

But some easily could be from the Rices, Favres and Woodsons of the world, demanding some hard answers after his bold Waller proclamation. We're not certain that all of Gruden's former players will have the same reasonable perspective on this matter.

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