For the longest time, they were strangers.
Oh, Mike Evans and Jameis Winston were teammates, all right. Friends. And they both played offense. And if Winston was throwing it, most of the time, Evans was catching it.
Still, there seemed to be a disconnect through most of 2015. The stats might say otherwise – Winston threw for 4,042 yards, including 1,026 to Evans. But the two missed on a lot of plays, too. Evans was targeted 148 times, and he led the NFL in dropped passes. He scored only three touchdowns.
This year? There are miles difference. Evans, with 55 catches, has been the Bucs’ best player. His touchdowns are up to eight.
“I need him to get open,” Winston said. “Everyone knows he’s one of our main targets. Mike knows he’s our main guy, but that’s the fight inside of him that (says), ‘Man, I’ve got to get open for the benefit of this team.’”
Evans has spent most of this week in concussion protocol. He will take the test Thursday to see if he can play Sunday against the Bears.
“When Mike gets frustrated with coverage and over the top – it’s a compliment,” said offensive coordinator Todd Monken. “I said, ‘That’s what you want, that’s the ultimate compliment.’ If they’re leaving you out there one-on-one, you’re not the player you think you are. So, that is a compliment and we have to be creative to find ways to get him the ball and move him around, but that’s always – the best way to move the football is play complementary football. If we can run it well enough to where they’ve got to put extra guys in the box, can we throw it over their head? Okay, do we have enough skill guys in the perimeter where they’ve got to back off where we can consistently run the ball? So, Mike’s continued to improve, he’s had really good weeks of practice and it’s shown.”
One of Evans’ catches Sunday was a highlight reel, one-hander.
“When your superstars are making plays for you, it gives everyone else around just an extra boost of confidence,” Winston said. “Like, ‘Mike’s doing it, I can do it,’ so it’s good. But it’s an overall team thing. The more we can get people to playing up to Mike’s level, man, it’s going to be scary.
“(That catch) was amazing. People talk about (New York Giant wide receiver) Odell Beckham’s catch (in 2014). It was an amazing catch, he caught it with his three fingers. But, Mike took a hit on that play and kept the ball in that one hand, so that’s impressive.”
Said receiver Adam Humphries: “It’s always good to have a guy like Mike on your team, regardless of where he’s at. He’s just a playmaker. Obviously with that catch, the things he did the other night, it’s just incredible. His ball skills and the way he can go up and get the ball, it’s impressive.”
If Evans can play, the Bucs have a chance to get their three best offensive players on the field at the same time: Doug Martin, Evans and Winston.
They may need them. Despite their 2-6 record, the Bears are 12th in the league in defense.