TAMPA — If there's one place to find hope in another Bucs' losing season, it's in another strong campaign from wide receiver Mike Evans — as well as the point that among those who see him every day, there's no question that Evans has yet to scratch the surface of his potential.
The numbers show that. He's off to one of the best professional starts of any receiver in NFL history. And he enters Sunday's road game against the Cowboys just 94 yards shy of the franchise's single-season receiving yards record, set by Mark Carrier 29 years ago.
"Mike has aspirations of owning every record, even higher than that," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "I would just say that if he doesn't get it this year, he's (eventually) going to get it."
Evans. 25, already owns the Bucs' team record for career receiving yards, and he's just 93 yards shy of the 6,000-yard mark for his career, which would make him just the sixth receiver since the merger to reach that milestone in his first five pro seasons.
"That's Mike, man," Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. "He's one of the best players to play the game. He's going to keep getting better. … I'm just happy I get to throw that guy the ball."
Evans' 1,328 receiving yards this season are second most in the NFL. While that wasn't enough to get him his second Pro Bowl nod, Evans has said that he feels like this has been his best season.
Carrier's 1,422-yard season in 1989 came during a time when NFL offenses weren't as explosive. There have been 58 1,400-yard receiving seasons since 2000, but just 26 between 1970 and 1999.
"Anyone know how far off I am?" Evans asked after receiver a query about the record. "Hopefully I can get it. I should be able to. I just have to have a good week of practice this week. I think I should be able to get it this week. If not, then hopefully next week."
Both Evans and his coaches say he's becoming a more polished route runner this season. And he's done his best job yet of maintaining his health through the rigors of a 16-game season. Evans want to continue that over the season's final two games.
"His whole season, he's been in attack mode, and that's one thing that's been different," wide receivers coach Skyler Fulton said. "He's attack, attack, attack instead of just playing. He's competitive on a whole other level. You can see his emotions come out at times, bumping into guys, that's just Mike's competitiveness. He wants to win. He's going to fight until the end. It doesn't matter what the score is or our record is. One thing I can count on is that Mike is going to come out and compete every single time."
The one thing that has been frustrating for Evans personally — aside from a losing season — has been penalties. He's a physical receiver, and his 6-foot-5 frame makes gives him a physical advantage. But when matched up against smaller defensive backs, his size can also hurt. He's been flagged for offensive pass interference four times this season, including once in last week's 20-12 loss in Baltimore on a play that stalled one of the Bucs' best offensive drives of the game.
The four offensive pass interference called against Evans — three were accepted, one declined — mark the most against any receiver in the league. And Evans said Wednesday that he knows he's typically flagged more than other receivers. He's had at least four offensive pass interference calls in four of his five years in the league.
"I don't feel (like it happens often) — it does," Evans said. "It's proven. But there's nothing I can do about it. I've just got to keep playing. I understand the ref's job out there is extremely hard. They're going out there with the best in the world, moving that fast, it's tough to call."
Evans erupted after Sunday's flag, when he was called for an illegal pick on a run route with him and Adam Humphries stacked next to each other. Humphries made a catch to the 5-yard line, but Evans was called for making contact the defender who was covering him in man coverage. At least that's what Koetter's argument was.
After the game, he replayed the play out loud and said he should have just put his hands up in traffic to avoid a flag, but he's confident in the fact he's better in his route running than he's ever been. He said he's also nicer to officials than he was his first few years in the league.
"I don't know, man," Evans said. "I used to be a mean guy once I got in the league — to officials. And then I've gotten a little nicer. It has helped. My first few years, I was called a lot, more than I have been the past couple. So I guess I've got to be nicer."
Evans said he knows that opposing players and coaches tell officials that Evans pushes off, and while he admits to being physical, Evans is confident in saying his route-running is better now than ever.
"All receivers push off, some more than others," Evans said. "I don't push off as much as a I used to. But DB's definitely hold, a lot a lot, and don't get called. But it wouldn't be a game if they got called as much as they should be. That's how it is. I like getting held, as long as the ref doesn't call me for playing physical."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.