TAMPA — Put the record book down. There will be plenty of time for that later.
Forget about the streak of 1,000-yard seasons, and the ascension up the all-time list of touchdown receptions.
The numbers have always been so gaudy, they tend to be the first thing we talk about when Mike Evans comes to play. And while the statistics tell the story of his pending Hall of Fame career, they do not explain the persistence of the man. The pride. The relentlessness.
That’s what you saw Sunday in Tampa Bay’s 20-6 win against Tennessee. That’s what was revealed when he fell to one knee in the back of the end zone after dropping what should have been an easy touchdown pass. That’s the portrait of Evans alone on the bench afterward as disgust mingled with disbelief.
Without any prompting, he later acknowledged that the drop involved more hubris than is advisable for a Pro Bowl player.
“I was wide open, and I dropped it,” Evans said. “Got a little cocky thinking about what fan I was going to give the ball to. Can’t do that.”
Seriously? That’s what caused him to take his eye off the ball?
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “I got what I deserved.”
The Bucs had to settle for a field goal and, at the time, were clinging to a 10-3 lead in the third quarter. Evans’ drop had the potential to haunt the Bucs for months to come if they somehow failed to emerge on top in what was looking like a must-win game after four consecutive losses.
And yet, one possession later, Evans cut inside of a cornerback and hauled in a tipped pass for a 27-yard reception.
“Mike’s mentally tough,” coach Todd Bowles said. “If we keep feeding him, we know he’s going to come through for us.”
Five plays later, he caught a ball at the 5 and dragged Kristian Fulton with him into the end zone for a 17-3 lead.
“No one holds themselves to a higher standard than Mike, and I know he was frustrated by the (drop),” said tight end Cade Otton. “He’s talked to me during games after I’ve dropped a pass and told me not to dwell on it because another one is going to be coming, and next time I’m going to make the play.
“To see him put that into practice on the field is powerful stuff. He’s just a great pro.”
For the record, the touchdown reception was the 87th of his career and tied him with Hall of Famer Andre Reed for No. 16 on the all-time list. He finished the afternoon with 143 receiving yards, which boosted his career total to 11,162. At the rate he’s going, Evans should finish the season just ahead of Calvin Johnson and right behind Don Maynard — two more Hall of Famers — on the all-time list.
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“He’s so passionate out there. You can see he wears his heart on his sleeve, and that’s why I love having Mike out there,” said linebacker Shaquil Barrett. “He holds himself accountable and he holds the team accountable. When the defense isn’t doing good, he comes over and says, ‘We got you, we’re going to pick you up.’ We work hand-in-hand and Mike is one of those guys who’s always pointing that out.”
He is averaging 81.9 yards per game, which would be his highest total since 2019, but this has not been the most joyous season for Evans. He is in the final year of his contract and had expected the Bucs to sign him to an extension in the offseason.
With salary cap issues and the potential for further rebuilding of the roster in 2024, the Bucs have chosen to put off contract talks with their 30-year-old receiver until after the final game. There’s a risk he could leave via free agency next spring, and Tampa Bay’s 12-14 record since 2022 can’t help matters.
After addressing his contract situation early in training camp, Evans has since avoided the topic. Although his description of bouncing back after a miscue on Sunday could be a metaphor for the situation he may soon find himself in after the season.
“You’re going to have lowlights because you’re going up against the best of the best and things happen so fast,” Evans said. “You have to keep playing. You can’t let it keep you down, so that’s my mindset all the time. Nobody likes to mess up, drop passes or miss opportunities. You just have to keep playing.”
He’s done that now for the better part of 10 seasons. Whether he returns next season or ventures beyond One Buc Place, Evans will go down as the greatest offensive player in Tampa Bay history.
The numbers are obvious, and the evidence is ample. And we’ll have at least another nine weeks to fully appreciate the legacy of Mike Evans. The skill. The desire. The perseverance.
“That’s what this game is about — adversity and overcoming that,” Evans said. “That’s what life is about.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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