TAMPA — In some ways, the touchdown was like the toughest trial of his career. Some doubt, great anticipation, a stumble and ultimately triumph.
O.J. Howard came out of his break in the end zone at Lincoln Financial Field and nearly fell on his face in the first quarter Thursday night against the Eagles.
“Man, I had run into a guy and I stumbled after I let go of the guy and I said, ‘I can’t fall. I’ve got to score this one. I’ve got a chance to be open,’” Howard said Tuesday at practice. “And then when I caught my balance, I looked up and saw the ball and I thought the guy was going to tip it, but it went over his head. It was close. It was a close call, but I made it out.”
Officially, it was only a 2-yard touchdown reception from Tom Brady that gave the Bucs a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. But the journey was much longer for Howard.
Having ruptured his right Achilles tendon in a Week 4 game against the Chargers last season, Howard battled back and played a key role in the Bucs’ 28-22 win over the Eagles.
He started the past three games at tight end for injured veteran Rob Gronkowski but the Thursday night performance was by far his best.
Howard matched his career high with six catches for 49 yards and the touchdown on seven targets. He spiked the football so hard that it bounded into the seats. The Bucs retrieved it and now Howard wants to display it at his home as a symbol of his comeback.
By now, you should be familiar with Howard’s story. He was the 19th overall pick from Alabama in the 2017 draft. But injuries have always derailed his ascent as one of the NFL’s best tight ends. Mostly, it was a nagging ankle or a hamstring injury that derailed his progress.
Then came the Achilles rupture when he was playing perhaps the best football of his career.
“He was scratching the surface,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He was really coming on like gang busters last year when he got hurt. And that’s a hard injury to get over. It’s a 12-month job. He’s doing a heck of a job right now.”
Howard started 2020 with 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, he helped spur a 21-point comeback against the Chargers with three receptions for 50 yards, including a touchdown before his injury.
Stay updated on the Super Bowl champs
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
It took about nine months before Howard was able to resume football activities. Because his right foot was immobilized for so long, there was atrophy in the right calf muscle.
Howard did not believe he was favoring his injured leg earlier this season, but the eye in the sky said otherwise.
“I kept telling myself I didn’t,” he said. “But as you do have a supporting cast around you, teammates and guys who say they still see it, ‘We see you kind of favoring this and favoring that.’ And then you go back and look and you’re like, ‘I think I am.’ I’d been telling myself I was good, and I wasn’t favoring a side. But there were some cases where I was. I wouldn’t say I was scared but it’s just the way it is. ...
“Now that I know how to play for six weeks now, I kind of got a feel for how it goes.”
Football is a game of repetition and Howard had a lot of catching up to do. He had to refine his blocking technique in the run game. He needed to trust his legs to run, cut and accelerate. Mostly, Howard just needed playing time and he got that when Gronkowski fractured multiple ribs at Los Angeles in Week 3.
“Obviously practicing and doing all those things, but just being comfortable knowing, ‘I can run. I can do all those things. I can change directions,’ ” Arians said. “His run after the catch was really good and he’s just going to continue to build confidence.”
Howard had no idea he would be that involved in the passing game last Thursday. Due to the short week, the Bucs didn’t practice. They walked through their game plan. The Eagles’ defensive scheme dictated his increased presence.
“I just think how it went out, the way they played us coverage-wise, a lot of two high (safeties), a lot of opportunities,” Howard said. “Linebackers were trying to cover us and safeties so (Brady) loved that matchup.”
Howard’s touchdown came just more than a year after his injury. Eight days after the darkest moment of his career, daughter Caliana Mia Howard was born.
Last Tuesday, Howard celebrated Cali’s first birthday. Two days later, he was back in the end zone. The football will eventually go to Cali, a symbol of perseverance over pain.
Meanwhile, his comeback continues.
“First touchdown since the injury,” Howard said. “It’s going to be something I will always remember.”
• • •
Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.