Not only is wide receiver Mike Evans out for the season with a hamstring injury, but fellow wideout Chris Godwin won’t play Saturday against the Houston Texans, either, and he might very well be done for the season as well. (Coach Bruce Arians is still holding out hope that Godwin can return for the season finale.)
None of the Bucs’ four recent victories -- which propelled them from 3-7 to 7-7 -- have come against teams with winning records or top-10 offenses or defenses. Saturday's game (1 p.m. ET, NFL Network) against the Texans (9-5), who are fighting for a division title and defeated the New England Patriots earlier this month, presents that opportunity. It can serve as a true measuring stick of the Bucs’ and Winston’s progress -- even without “two of the best on the planet” in Evans and Godwin, as offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich put it.
Winston is still playing for the right to come back next year. Earning the right to be called a “franchise quarterback” shouldn’t mean having to carry a team for all 16 games in a season. But when the big moments arise, when other players succumb to injury, that’s when you expect those players to carry more of the load.
Winston has been in a similar situation before, when he lost tight end O.J. Howard, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and guard J.R. Sweezy in Week 15 of 2017 against the Atlanta Falcons. Ali Marpet and Demar Dotson were already out for the season. Winston wound up throwing for three touchdown in that game with no interceptions. The Bucs lost 24-21, but it was arguably one of the best performances of Winston's career.
This year, the Bucs’ offense has become centered around Evans and Godwin, the first pair of receiving teammates to reach the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in 2009. They've accounted for nearly 57% of the Bucs’ receiving touchdowns and more than 54% of their receiving yardage.
Without Evans two weeks ago against the Indianapolis Colts -- he left the game in the first quarter after a 61-yard touchdown catch -- Winston threw three touchdown passes to three other targets: wide receivers Justin Watson and Breshad Perriman and tight end Cameron Brate. Against the Lions last Sunday, Winston completed at least one pass to 11 different targets, with three of his touchdowns going to Perriman and a fourth going to wide receiver Scotty Miller, who was also moved to injured reserve this week with a hamstring injury.
Spreading the ball around to different receivers would represent progress for Winston. In both games against New Orleans this year, the Saints’ defense essentially eliminated both Godwin and Evans and the Bucs didn’t have many answers beyond getting the ball to Brate, and they were too slow to respond with that.
Now is Winston’s chance to keep developing those skills, not only with Perriman, Watson, Brate and Howard, but with newcomers Ishmael Hyman, Cyril Grayson and Spencer Schnell, who was with the team in the preseason. It’s also more of an opportunity for Winston to take what the defense is giving him, rather than trying to be Superman and forcing things.
"It’s always been communicated to him before that, but other than that, just go play the way you’ve been playing," Leftwich said. "See what you’ve been seeing. I don’t want him overthinking this thing. It’s hard enough as it is to play the position, so you can’t try to go out and do everyone else’s job. Allows those guys to do their job. You just make sure you do your job -- that’s the mindset you’ve got to have as a quarterback anytime you are in this situation.”