TAMPA ― It is, by almost any measure, his signature catch. It wasn’t necessarily the most difficult or the one that made the biggest difference on the scoreboard.
In fact, what made it so spectacular is that, for Mike Evans, it was almost routine.
When the Bucs receiver lined up one-on-one against Cowboys All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs last Sunday night in Arlington, Texas, the handwriting was on the wall.
Kareem had the sky hook. Mona Lisa had her smile. For Evans, his trademark is the fade route in the red zone.
It can be thrown on the back shoulder or over the shoulder to the back pylon.
The result is one of the most automatic plays in football.
‘The picture is better’
Evans’ 5-yard touchdown reception Sunday came with a little extra flair. He corralled the football with one hand after fully extending his long arms and 6-foot-5 frame, pulling it back into his body as he managed to keep both feet down in the end zone.
Associated Press photographer Michael Ainsworth was positioned in the end zone at AT&T Stadium to capture the image.
“It was a pretty good catch,” Evans said. “The picture is better than the catch, though. The catch was all right. I’ve seen the picture. It makes it look like I really just caught it with one hand, but I caught it with one and brought it in.”
Considering the struggles the Bucs had in the red zone, Evans’ catch was a relief to an offense that had been forced to settle for five field-goal attempts despite ending drives at the Dallas 26, 18, 20, 8 and 11-yard lines.
Play-calling is critical, especially in the red zone. But it gets a little easier for offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich anytime Evans is left one-on-one.
“How do I answer that? I’ll say it’s worked out for us some,” Leftwich said of Evans’ patented fade route. “We’re just trying to get in the best position to score, that’s what it really comes down to. We work on everything, really. It’s just that if we get certain looks, we get to certain things.”
A lethal combination
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Evans’ ability to contort his body and block defenders from the football is a testament to his athleticism.
Coming out of Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, Evans not only had a scholarship to play football at Texas A&M, but an offer to play basketball at the University of Texas.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt if the quarterback throwing you the football is the greatest of all-time. Since arriving in Tampa Bay, Tom Brady and Evans have connected for 28 touchdown passes in 46 games.
It’s a lethal combination, but one that has been perfected through hours and hours of repetition in practice and during the offseason.
“He throws a really great ball, and I have the body type and skill set to go get them,” Evans said. “He can throw it back shoulder, jump ball, inside fade, slants. We’re real good in the red area, and we work it a lot.
“It’s a reaction, but we definitely practice all those things. It comes with repetition and Tom and I doing it together.”
While Evans’ catch at Dallas was spectacular, there have been others that were more impactful and impossible.
Placement doesn’t have to be perfect
In the 2021 NFC Championship Game against the Packers, Evans faked the post route before running the fade to the back pylon. Brady’s pass was perfectly placed over the fingertips of Packers cornerback Kevin King for a touchdown.
Of course, with Evans length and leaping ability, the ball placement doesn’t have to be perfect.
“Well, Mike kind of equals that out, right?” Leftwich said. “It’s whatever it needs to be, sometimes. That just goes to show you about the two players: the guy that’s throwing the ball and the guy that’s catching the ball, really. The talent of those two, as in sync as those two (are), that’s what you really see. Once those guys step on the grass, they have an understanding of each other where they can make those types of plays.”
Evans still considers his greatest catch the one he made during a “Thursday Night Football” game against the Falcons in 2016. He ran an out route near the sideline and adjusted to a pass thrown over his head by Jameis Winston, stabbing it with one hand and hanging on before taking an enormous hit from Falcons safety Keanu Neal.
Of course, Neal is now a teammate of Evans’ and the two talk about that play often.
“It was two-man, so it wasn’t on (Neal), but he hit me,” Evans said. “But that was definitely one of my best catches. Those two. I’ve got some other better catches than those one-handers. It won Play of the Year at NFL Honors that year, so I’ll take that. It’s up there.”
Brady has played with a few great receivers, including Randy Moss. But he ranks Evans near the top.
“He’s a great target,” Brady said. “He’s 6-5, he jumps, he’s got great ball skills, he’s got great hands, he’s got great vision, tracks it well. He does everything pretty well. Anytime I’m throwing to Mike, usually good things are happening. When you get in the red area, if Mike’s available he usually gets it.”
Bucs safety Logan Ryan said Evans and Brady make those plays in practice on a daily basis.
“I’m just happy I’m not on the other side,” Ryan said. “I’ve played against Mike for years. I’ve always taken account of him. We doubled him a lot down there, and when you don’t that’s what can happen. I’ve played with and against Tom for years. It’s an unguardable play between those two.
“The placement of the ball, the length of Mike. I’m not (6-5). DBs are not (6-5). And for him to be able to reach out and dive and catch it, it’s unguardable. I’ve been on both sides of it, and he’s very, very good. I’ve always thought he was an underrated receiver and definitely a Hall of Famer. I see it every day at practice. It’s cliché, but it’s very regular. It’s a very regular play for him.”
The Bucs’ social media team posted Ainsworth’s photo Sunday night, adding, ‘Put. It. In. The. Louvre.”
By mid-week, an enlarged framed picture of Evans’ catch was hanging in the hallway at AdventHeath Training Center.
It awaits his signature.
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