Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Castoffs have become quite the catch for Bucs

TAMPA — You know the most amazing thing about all those third downs Jameis Winston turned into first downs in the Bucs' 19-17 win at Kansas City on Sunday? It wasn't the passes he threw. It was who caught them.

"It wasn't just the Mike Evans show," coach Dirk Koetter said.

Oh, Evans did his part with six catches for 105 yards, including one that moved the chains late in the fourth quarter and essentially melted all the time off the clock.

But games like the one the Bucs played Sunday will tell you more about yourself than X-rays or an autobiography. Five other players caught passes to help the Bucs convert a stunning 11 of 16 third-down situations.

Guys like Hump, Shep, Brate, Shorts and Cross.

For the Bucs, somebody stepping into the lineup and stepping up has become commonplace, like the weather forecast or the traffic report.

It's a different understudy every week. Playing the role of Doug Martin will be Jacquizz Rodgers. Playing the role of Vincent Jackson will be Cecil Shorts, or Russell Shepard, or Adam Humphries, or Cameron Brate or Alan Cross or Freddie Freaking Martino, whose second reception of his career was a touchdown against the Bears.

The Bucs offense has evolved into a United Way office campaign: Everyone must contribute.

"We talk about role playing all the time," Koetter said. "Play your role. Understand your role could change at any time. But let's face it, in real life, everybody is willing to play their role but everybody wants a slice of the pie, too. So it's easier to do the grunt work, some of the dirty work, when you're getting some of the glory."

So let's start passing out some slices of humble pie. Be honest: When Jackson was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, you started looking to see if you knew any Raiders, Falcons or Bears fans who wanted to buy Bucs tickets.

But week by week, all these pass catchers stayed after practice and caught extra footballs. They watched more tape. They ran better routes. They improved.

As Koetter is fond of saying, anybody on an NFL roster is one of the best football players in the world. But that left some of these dudes a football field or two short of being one of the best players in the NFL, or even one of the best on the roster.

"There's no rule that even the best in the world can't get better," Koetter said. "There's something to be said for player development, and it starts with the guys wanting to get better and working at it. I've definitely been on teams when guys wouldn't do that. And the fact that the coaches are working them, pushing them, driving them. (Receiver) coach (Todd) Monken stays out there with those guys."

Shorts is a six-year vet who played under Koetter at Jacksonville. He nearly had 1,000 yards receiving for the Jags in 2012. He has 277 career receptions. But he wasn't signed by the Bucs until five days before the season opener. "Our connection is getting better every single week," Winston said of Shorts, who caught five passes for 62 yards Sunday, including a 19-yarder on third down.

Humphries and Brate, both undrafted and cut at least once by the Bucs, have evolved into top targets. Cross, an undrafted free agent from Memphis, caught the game-sealing TD Sunday, the first of his pro career.

"Our receivers came up big," Koetter said. "When they had chances to make plays, they made them."

That has always been the beauty and the ugly side of football, whether you're talking about youth leagues or the NFL. One man's pain is truly another man's gain. It's a next man up business. Injuries bring opportunity.

Shame on all of us for not giving these guys their due. Sometimes we can't tell the players with a scorecard.

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