San Diego Chargers quarterback Billy Volek led the team's game-winning drive against the Arizona Cardinals during a preseason NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 27, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.
Chargers wide receiver Bryan Walters' helmet did not move an inch.
His right arm raised to full extension in the air. The football floated like a balloon off his hand. He sprung off the grass from his left foot and gripped the leather with both hands.
Eyes fixed on the ball. Eyes fixed on a roster spot.
The young Cornell graduate brought the circus into Glendale, Ariz., on Saturday night, making a dazzling tip-to-self catch in traffic off a cornerback's deflection. On the next play, his crisp deep out route cleared him for the game-winning touchdown with three seconds remaining in the team's 34-31 preseason win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The finish was a perfect metaphor for the 23-year-old's ongoing roster battle.
The wide receiver position is crowded, but Walters is concentrated. As time is running out, he's separated himself.
“I love him,” said quarterback Billy Volek, who orchestrated the 12-play, 90-yard final drive. “He’s a great route-runner. He’s extremely smart, he’s deceivingly fast, and he works his tail end off. We’ve got a lot of receivers like that. Bryan is just taking advantage of the opportunity he has.”
The Chargers, who trailed 24-17 at halftime, were 0-4 last season when losing at halftime on the road. The beauty Saturday wasn't simply that they came back to win.
More importantly, the first-team offense and defense, which played into the third quarter, were challenged, providing the units quality tape to analyze in the days ahead.
The Cardinals defense brought a complication of stunts and blitzes. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald burned the defense deep. Cohort Andre Roberts scored on a 34-yard reverse. Beanie Wells was able to, like Felix Jones last week, earn yards in the ground game. Cornerback Patrick Peterson intercepted Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and took it to the house.
“My general impression is when we're doing things right and we've got everyone playing on the same page, we're pretty good,” coach Norv Turner said. “We obviously have a number of new players and backup players playing on defense, and we're not as consistent as we need to be. Some of that will be helped when we get our veteran guys back. But certainly, the young guys have to be prepared to play.”
Keep focusing. Keep improving.
Even Walters, the game's hero, knows that applies to him, too.
“I've got to go back to practice and learn from this game because there's tons to learn from,” he said. “I know I did a lot wrong out there, too. Just got to keep learning out there, every day.”