Jason O. Watson / Contributor

There is a lot being said about the 2021 comeback of quarterback Alex Smith, and deservedly so. Darren Waller knows a little something about climbing his way back into the NFL limelight as well, albeit for a much different reason, but the bottom line is he's become one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league. The Las Vegas Raiders have the pleasure of calling him theirs after head coach Jon Gruden saw past his off-the-field struggles and into his soul. But as Waller enters his fourth year with the team, he finds himself struggling on two fronts: knowing the Raiders need to get into the playoffs soon, and having to defend Derek Carr.

The club has shown improvement since hiring Gruden to a 10-year deal in 2018 and subsequently general manager Mike Mayock, having improved from 4-12 to 7-9 to 8-8 over the past three seasons, respectively, but they narrowly missed the playoffs in 2020 -- in large part due to their ineptitude on defense (third-worst in the NFL).

"Yeah, we have to make the playoffs," Waller said, via NFL Network's "Good Morning Football". "No more excuses. No more justifications. I know offensively speaking, on the side of the ball that I'm on, we can be better in the red zone. We're good at a lot of things, but we can definitely be better at red-zone efficiency and scoring touchdowns there.

"Defense, I feel like just for them, the small things and those little habits and how we prepare on a week-to-week basis will carry over into the game, playing a more simpler scheme for them and allowing their individual skill sets to shine and just being more disciplined. I feel like we're right there outside of a few plays even the defense would agree can't happen. We're right there. So I believe in these guys and I know that this year is going to be a special year for us."

Despite the Raiders owning the 10th-best offense in the league under Carr, and a lot of inconsistency at wide receiver, the 29-year-old threw for 4,103 passing yards (second-most of his career) along with 27 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, finishing the season with a career-high passer rating of 101.4. Yet, Carr is again drawing a lot of criticism that is amplified by Russell Wilson eyeing the Raiders as a potential trade destination. It appears Carr is still improving and, if his defense matches serve and the Raiders get complementary production to what Waller does on a weekly basis, the Raiders will be cooking with fire.

This is why, along with their strong overall relationship, Waller wants Carr to stay right where he is.

"I have all the belief in the world in Derek Carr," Waller said. "I have ever since I got here. I still do to this day. I think he's a guy that can take us everywhere we want to go."

It's a sentiment recently echoed by fullback Alec Ingold, who didn't mince words when explaining what Carr means in Vegas.

"It's the general belief that Derek Carr isn't the guy. That doesn't make sense to me," Ingold told The Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I just don't understand it. Because he is the guy. In our locker room, there is a sense of pride that we have our guy and we're gonna ride with our guy. 

"That is what bothers me more than anything. I can't understand how anybody isn't ecstatic to have this guy as the quarterback. By the way he plays. By the way he competes. By the way he leads. 

"There is a sense of confidence around here that Derek Carr is our quarterback."