It didn’t seem fair when it happened. It still doesn’t seem fair.
The playoff-bound Bucs overwhelmed the Falcons on Sunday. They put up another 44 points. Tom Brady threw four more touchdowns for 40 on his remarkable, ageless season. The Bucs assured themselves the top wild-card spot, and a date next weekend against the NFC East winner (loser) with their 11th win of the season, only the fourth time in franchise history the team has won as many games in a season. Anything seems possible.
Then why, oh, why, was there a deathly pall over Raymond James Stadium early Sunday afternoon?
Here’s why: Mike Evans, the best receiver in Bucs history, and maybe a better man, was being helped to his feet in the Falcons end zone after he couldn’t hold onto another Brady TD pass. Then Evans was, helped from the field, putting no weight open his left leg, before an emergency cart took him inside, bound for an MRI and perhaps the end of his season before a crack at the first postseason of his career.
All of this one play after Evans had caught a pass to make history: the first man to gain 1,000 receiving yards in his first seven NFL seasons. A great moment.
“It meant the world for him to get that record,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said.
And then Evans went down. His left leg gave way on the wet turf.
“It just blew out underneath him,” Arians said.
“I think the life in the stadium just got sucked out …” Bucs receiver Chris Godwin said.
Godwin was hurting. Evans had been his mentor, his role model. It’s like that for a lot of Bucs, even one of the newest ones.
“Consistent, dependable, tough, great playmaker, great attitude, selfless, never talks about his own accomplishments,”: Brady said of Evans.
That has been No. 13 since he joined the Bucs in 2014. The team lost 14 games that season. Evans kept at it, through stellar seasons, through Pro Bowl appearances, through more than 500 catches, 70 this year alone _ but never the playoffs. He played the good soldier, season after season. He was as good in the community, or two communities, Tampa Bay and his hometown of Galveston, Texas, deed after deed in the name of those at risk, including in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising money through his foundation, $100,000.
It was enough to make Evans the Bucs’ nominee for the prestigious Waler Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for the second consecutive year.
And he gets helped off the field in the shadow of the playoffs?
It seems all wrong.
The man has put in the time here, 67 losses of it. This was his time. Maybe it still will be.
The Bucs might still be able to win a postseason game. They played like it after Evans went down. Brady threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns. Godwin had 133 yards receiving and two scores. Antonio Brown had 138 yards and two TDs. People stepped up for the Bucs, all over, some in the name of their fallen friend.
“It was just hey, you young guys step up. Scottie, Tyler, step up, AB, go play X. There’s nothing we can do about it at the time. It sounds cold at times, but you have to go on.”
“Totally. Totally. It just blew out from underneath him.”
Arians didn’t think the injury was serious, but he and the Bucs will know more today. That didn’t help Sunday afternoon.
Once upon a time, when Evans walked the walk, he sat down during the national anthem to protest the election of Donald Trump. He quickly backed down, and apologized to military veterans everywhere, but he made a point. Mike Evans was going to be heard.
With his play, with his everything.
“I think that’s when you see how important Mike is to this team, this organization, this city,” Godwin said. “He does so much for everyone around here.”
The Bucs have had players who have waited forever for playoff games. Former Buc Gerald McCoy never made it to the postseason in Tampa Bay. Mike Evans inherited the bridesmaid title when McCoy left.
This was his year. Maybe it still will be.
Ever pull for an MRI?
Now is the time.
Mike Evans deserves a postseason. Forget Brady and all the targets. Evans is the glue. And the Bucs will have a hard time sticking around in January without him.
“What I do know is that he’s a fighter, and if he can go for us, he’s going to do everything he can to get on that field,” Godwin said. “I’m just praying for him, praying for his family, praying for a speedy recovery.”