TAMPA — Redemption didn’t land in his lap, or even his numbers. Instead it was thrown a bit behind him, befitting this imperfect afternoon.
Nearly a full half after his fumble at midfield, Russell Gage — aligned in the slot on the right side at the 1-yard line — sprinted toward the center of the end zone, where Tom Brady somehow needled his fastball through three Packers defenders. His tweaked hamstring searing at that point, Gage reached back and snagged the spiral with 14 seconds to play.
“It was put the only place it could be,” Gage said of the touchdown. “I think (Brady) did a good job of putting it on me instead of leading me to the next guy, so I’m kind of glad he put a little extra on it.”
Unable to pick himself off the turf, Gage was helped to his feet by fellow receiver Jaelon Darden as the roar of a record crowd showered its decibels on him. This was the presumed piece de resistance, the climax of an ebb-and-flow afternoon for the fifth-year veteran who signed with the Bucs in March.
But on the ensuing two-point try, the Bucs were whistled for a delay-of-game penalty before Brady’s rollout throw toward Gage was batted by linebacker De’Vondre Campbell at the goal line, preserving a 14-12 Packers victory.
And the redemptive tale was rendered moot.
“(Gage) had a lot of catches,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “Any time you fumble the football, that takes away everything you did good. But he’s a fighter, he’s feisty, he comes to play. We’ve just got to clean up the turnovers.”
The self-infliction — on the Bucs’ first possession of the third quarter — stymied what might have been the best day of Gage’s NFL life. With Mike Evans serving a one-game suspension, and Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Julio Jones (knee) sidelined, Gage represented one of Brady’s few viable passing-game options.
And even he was far from optimal health. Gage was limited at practice Wednesday and Thursday, and missed Friday’s practice altogether due to his hamstring issue. On the Bucs’ final injury report, he was listed as questionable for the game.
“I definitely would prefer to get the reps, but having someone like Tom really helps out,” Gage said.
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“He does extra work with me on the side. Meetings, we talk over things, we go over signals, concepts, what he’s looking for out of certain coverages and things. So he does a great job of helping me get those mental reps when I can’t get those physical reps on the field and at practice and everything.”
Mental reps transitioned to meaningful ones in rapid succession at Sunday’s most critical stretch.
Brady connected with him on the first three plays of the Bucs’ final drive, for gains of 9, 15 and 5 yards. He had another 8-yard catch before his touchdown reception. For the afternoon, he finished with a career-best 12 catches, for 87 yards.
“He did a great job,” Brady said. “He really battled through it. We had a lot of guys down, but those guys who were in there in some hot weather did a great job, especially that last drive. There were a lot of good plays guys were making.”
If only atonement hadn’t gone awry.
“Just a lot of communication things,” Gage said. “And that’s kind of the story of this game: penalties, us kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. We’ve got to be prepared in moments like this, and even with all that, we still had a chance, so it’s crazy.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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