Like both the downhill skier and the powerlifter in ABC's classic "Wide World of Sports" intro from the 1970s, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Andre Ellington experienced the agony and the ecstasy of his sport in practice on Saturday.
The agony came early, when Ellington suffered what Head Coach Bruce Arians would later describe as a finger dislocation during a red zone drill. Buccaneer trainers helped get the finger back in place and taped it to the one next to it, and Ellington immediately ran back onto the practice field. As Arians described it: "Just pulled it back in place and [said], 'Let's go. Put some tape on it.'"
The ecstasy came at the very end of the 150-minute practice when the Buccaneers ran a situational drill between their first-team offense and first-team defense and Ellington caught a pass for a two-point conversion the offense had to have in order to tie the "game" at the end of regulation. Wide receiver Chris Godwin had made a spectacular catch for the necessary touchdown from the nine-yard line as time expired.
"It was a needed two-point conversion to try to win the game," said Ellington, who left the backfield and ran a flat route just across the goal line that got him wide open near the right pylon. "We executed pretty good and got it done."
Yes, we're probably stretching the definition of both 'agony' and 'ecstasy' here, but the process of relocating a joint looked extremely unpleasant to this sideline observer, while the ability to make a big play in crunch time was surely very satisfying for a player trying to reestablish himself in the NFL. Ellington said he didn't think about his finger the rest of the practice after his return, and he joked that it even helped him on that big catch at the end.
And catching passes is kind of Ellington's thing. He recorded 214 receptions over four-plus years in Arizona, including three seasons of 57 or more grabs. All of that was under Arians, the former Cardinals coach who drafted Ellington in the sixth round in his first year in the desert.
"That's become my role over the years," said Ellington. "I had a few injuries and it kind of made me become more dominant in the passing game. I take it to heart. I try to perfect it as much as I can and try to get better."
Ellington was waived in November of 2017 by the Cardinals and claimed by the Houston Texans. He finished up that season in Houston and then had several tryouts the following offseason but did not sign with a team. He spent some time working with good friends DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans wide receiver, and running back Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams, and was able to focus on getting his body back into shape.
"It was a mental process," said Ellington of coping with a year out of the game. "It also allowed me physically to get my body back to where it needed to be. For the most part, it was just a mental grind. I had an opportunity to be around some elite stars, so I was able to keep my mind engaged on football being around those guys. I'm just glad to be out here."
Ellington credits Arians for believing in him and reaching out to see if his former charge still had good tread on his tires. He also knows that reuniting with his former head coach gives him a built-in advantage due to his knowledge of the playbook.
"He gave me a chance to come out and prove it to him," said the former Clemson standout. "I appreciate him believing in me and having the idea that maybe I still have it. It's my job to go out there and prove it.
"Everything is the same. It's all familiar – the terminology, everything, it's still the same. It helps a lot. It's a tremendous help. When you can go out there knowing what to do as opposed to having to learn it and execute, you're able to play a lot faster."
Ellington is part of a running back corps that also includes incumbent starter Peyton Barber and 2018 second-round pick Ronald Jones. Barber and Jones are likely to get the majority of the carries, but Ellington obviously has history as an effective third-down back and is probably battling the likes of undrafted rookie Bruce Anderson and 2018 holdover Dare Ogunbowale for the third spot on the depth chart. He has gotten off to a good start in the eyes of the man who gave him another shot at the NFL.
"He's healthy," said Arians. "You see his burst on a couple runs today. He dislocated a finger and came right back in. He's such a good route-runner. I haven't seen him this healthy since his rookie year. He is fast, he's quick, he's got his size back and he's healthy."