TAMPA — When teams made their final roster cuts before the season, the Bucs still were seeking a backup center, a reliable veteran to have behind returning starter Evan Smith.
Joe Hawley was coming off a torn ACL that limited him to four games last season with the Falcons and had been released days before the season opener.
First-year Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who spent the past three seasons in Atlanta, saw a perfect match.
"When Joe became available, I went to Coach (Lovie Smith) and went to Jason (Licht, general manager), and said, 'Look, we have a chance to get this guy,' " Koetter said this week. " 'He may not be quite healthy yet, but he is going to get better.' I know what kind of player Joe is."
The week Hawley was signed, center Evan Smith went down with an ankle injury against the Saints and Hawley stepped in, helping the Bucs to their first win Sept. 20. Hawley, 27, made such a strong impression that when Evan Smith got healthy a month later, the Bucs stuck with him at center. Smith filled in the past three games at right guard when another starter was sidelined by injury.
"(Hawley has) been a godsend," Koetter said. "He's helped us through two injuries. … I'm a huge Joe Hawley fan."
Sunday, the Bucs go for a season sweep of the Falcons, a year after trailing 56-0 in the fourth quarter of the first of two losses to them. Hawley has been the center of a revamped and upgraded offensive line, helping meld two rookies and two players signed since August.
"I'm just having fun playing with these guys," said Hawley, who has a Duck Dynasty-caliber beard that he has kept almost without interruption since high school. "We've got a good group of guys, and I think we play well together. We're right in the mix of the playoff race still, and this is a big game with a lot on the line."
The Bucs gave Hawley a two-year deal in September, paying him a guaranteed $1.25 million this season. But he smartly included ambitious incentives based on playing time — four $250,000 bonuses if he finished the season playing 40, 50, 62.5 or 75 percent of the offensive snaps. He has played 94 percent with five games left, so he essentially has clinched two of those bonuses and is on course to earn the other $500,000 to nearly double his income for the year.
As well as things have turned out for the Bucs at center, they have gone in the other direction for Atlanta. Its preseason starter has started only one game, the player the Falcons added in cutting Hawley has played in just two games, and the current starter hadn't started a game in four seasons before this year.
Hawley couldn't be happier, reunited with his old coordinator, his play each week rewarding the coach for a hearty endorsement.
"When you have a guy on your side that can put in a good word for you that's respected, that's very important," Hawley said. "That's the way the business is in the NFL. It's all about connections. That's why I never really burn bridges. You never know who's going to give you the next call."
Hawley quickly earned the respect of his new teammates. In the Bucs' loss to Carolina on Oct. 4, Hawley saw a Panthers player hit running back Doug Martin helmet first after a play and shoved the player in retaliation. The late hit didn't draw a flag (it later drew a fine), but it reminded the Bucs that the new guy had their back.
The Bucs gave up 52 sacks last season but are on pace to allow 32 this season despite three projected starters missing significant playing time. The offensive line has forged its chemistry with weekly Thursday night dinners — Martin even tags along — with a different player choosing the restaurant each week.
"You have to have respect for the guy you're playing next to and the style they play," Hawley said. "All the guys kind of came in together last minute, but we all really jelled really well. We have a good mix of leadership and experience and young guys trying to find their way. … We all fit really well, and we're having fun out there."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.