TAMPA — Shortly after returning from his nuptials a few weeks ago, Mike Evans began some "off-campus" throwing sessions with Jameis Winston aimed at improving the timing between receiver and quarterback.
But the honeymoon period is over for the Bucs' passing combination, coach Dirk Koetter says. Despite both players putting up enviable numbers last season, Koetter said Winston and Evans missed too many opportunities to connect downfield.
"When we get (Winston) back in the building, we have a long list of things we want to work on, starting with the deep ball," Koetter said. "We need to be more consistent throwing and catching the deep ball.
"I don't think (Evans) and Jameis ever really had great chemistry that you see a lot of the top quarterbacks and receivers in the league have. How could they? They're both such young guys, and they've been together just one year. I think as they grow older together, you'll see that chemistry improve."
Winston set a club rookie record last season by passing for 4,024 yards and 22 touchdowns en route to being voted by fans as the league's rookie of the year. Evans had 1,206 receiving yards, but his touchdown total fell from 12 in 2014 to three last season as he also led the league in dropped passes (11).
The Bucs had 139 explosive plays — plays of more than 20 yards — to tie for the league lead last season. But too often it looked as if Winston and Evans weren't on the same page of the playbook.
"In general, we have depths and landmarks we're trying to hit on the field," Koetter said. "And then the way the rules are written right now, the offensive players down the field have an advantage. How many balls deep down the sideline do you see that are either out of bounds or 5 yards overthrown? So our term for that is 'give him a chance.' If we're going to go to all the trouble to call it, to protect it, to get back there, all it comes down to is we've got to hit this spot and give Mike Evans a chance. We have a weapon with Mike."
Evans, 22, isn't blameless. He missed big chunks of the offseason during his first two years because of injury and has never looked to be in very good shape physically to start a season.
"I think Mike is such a talented guy, he just needs to be more consistent, more consistent in his preparation and more consistent in his work habits," Koetter said.
"I just think having a stable situation at quarterback, having the same offense in place, Mike had to go back to back with (new offenses), and I think Todd Monken as receivers coach will be tremendous for Mike. And I just think experience is the best teacher."
Koetter said he feels good about Tampa Bay's receiving corps, led by Evans and 33-year-old Vincent Jackson, who missed six games with knee injuries last season.
"I'm not a believer that Vincent Jackson is anywhere close to being done," Koetter said. "I think both of his injuries were extremely freakish last year. He happened to take a helmet right on the knee in both instances. Vincent is a fast healer. I think Mike is going to have a rebound year … if we can call 1,200 yards a bad season."
Winston has worked hard to get into better physical condition. He returned from the Pro Bowl inspired by the peak physical condition of Falcons receiver Julio Jones and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Winston, 22, hired a personal trainer and has been a fixture at One Buc Place in the weight room. Last week Koetter looked out at the practice field and in the predawn light could see Winston running sprints wearing a parachute for resistance.
So what benchmarks must Winston hit to show improvement in his second season?
"I would just say in our case it's got to be wins," Koetter said. "And everybody needs to win football games. But I said before, I really think for Jameis there won't be the unknowns.
"So I think him knowing what to expect, the preparation, the weekly schedule … we have a long list of things we want him to work on, and he's already started that on his own. But the benchmark is there's not a three-year plan or a five-year plan. We're trying to win right now. We've got to win games."
And maybe one day Evans can put a different kind of ring on his finger.