TAMPA — The last time O.J. Howard caught a touchdown pass at Raymond James Stadium was last January for Alabama in the College Football Championship title game against Clemson. He was wide open and went down the sideline for 68 yards and a touchdown.
"This was the same, wide open," Howard said early Sunday evening. "Same sideline."
But it was a first. Howard's first NFL touchdown.
"It matters," he said. "That first one is always a dream come true."
The Bucs rookie tight end fell in the Bucs' lap during the NFL Draft. Sunday, in the first quarter of the Bucs' 25-23 win over the Giants, long before all the real drama, a Jameis Winston pass down the sideline landed in Howard's lap and he ran it in for a 58-yard score to make it 13-0.
And maybe it was the beginning of the O.J. Howard era.
Bucs fans had been waiting on this.
"Better late than never," Howard said with a grin.
He had only caught two balls for 29 yards in the first games of the season. And he only caught two against the Giants. Honestly, it was another Bucs tight end, veteran Cameron Brate, who had the bigger day, with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch and a wonderful third-down grab to help set up hero Nick Folk. Repeating: hero Nick Folk.
But Howard's catch meant something.
It meant that there are all kinds of possibilities for this 6-foot-6, 251-pound tight end.
If only Winston could find DeSean Jackson deep like that.
Oh, well. Maybe sometime this season.
One guy at a time.
"I told O.J. at the beginning of the week, I said, 'You're from Alabama, if you don't give me a touchdown, we're going to have some problems,''' Winston said. "He went out there and he executed. That's what he does. I still have to get him the ball more."
For Howard, the hardest part was the waiting. Oh, not through the first two games, but for that pass from Winston on Sunday, which, after the Giants bought in on the run, seemed to hang in the air, and hang. Howard waited, and waited.
"We sold the run really well," Howard said. "When (Jameis) threw the ball, it was up there forever. I just kept my eye on it."
Wide open. Waiting.
"Those are the hardest ones," Brate said from his locker, close to Howard's stall.
"Those are the hardest. Right," Howard said.
They both grinned.
You can't have enough tight ends. True, with five of them, the Bucs push the outside of the envelope, especially since Brate had 57 receptions and eight touchdowns.
But I thought Howard was a no-brainer pick in the draft when he was available at the No. 19 pick. No doubt. He was the top talent on the board.
I believed that even with the glaring needs the Bucs had at rushing the ball, especially with Doug Martin an unknown heading into his suspension. Martin remains an unknown as he exits that suspension this week.
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I said that even when Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was available for the Bucs in that first round. They passed on Cook. A lot of teams did. Cook didn't get scooped up until the Minnesota Vikings took him up in the second round, 41st overall.
Cook was a sensation for the Vikings, too. Until Sunday. While making a cut against the Lions, he reportedly tore his ACL. That would mean surgery and the end of his season. Devastating.
Hindsight is ridiculous. The chance of Cook getting hurt isn't why the Bucs didn't take him. Any player's health can turn on a dime in this league. Things happen.
"It's a shame," Howard said. "I hope he's okay."
Somewhere in Howard's locker was the football he caught for his first NFL touchdown.
Exits and entrances. That's the NFL.
O.J. Howard truly joined it Sunday.
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