On October 3, tight end O.J. Howard played 51 offensive snaps in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 19-17 prime-time victory over the New England Patriots in Foxborough. The next day was the one-year anniversary of the Achilles tendon injury that brought a premature end to a promising 2020 campaign.
Howard didn't have a catch against the Patriots and was only targeted by Tom Brady once, but he did help kick start a running game that had been struggling, playing most of his snaps tight at the end of the O-Line while fellow tight end Cam Brate more often ran routes. The 51 snaps that Howard played were 20 more than he had seen in the first three games of the season combined. That big bump in playing time was largely due to the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski (fractured ribs) but also a sign that, a year removed from one of the more difficult injuries to overcome, Howard is rounding back into the form that prompted the Bucs to pick him with the 19th-overall pick in the 2017 draft.
"It feels good," said Howard of being back in action after having a sideline view of the team's run to the NFL championship last year. "With the work that was put in, obviously it's always happy when you get a chance to see it come to light on Sunday, or Thursday in [last week's] case. It felt really good. Every week, [I'm] just trying to keep stacking them up and adding onto it."
Over the next two games, Howard logged 93 more offensive snaps, a bit more than Brate though both tight ends continued to get more run as Gronkowski remained sidelined. In last Thursday's win in Philadelphia, Howard caught six passes on seven targets for 49 yards and a touchdown, all single-game highs for him this season. Much of that yardage came after he had the ball in his hands, as he was targeted successfully several times on tight end screens.
Howard's injury last October interrupted his opportunity to build chemistry with Tom Brady, who would gradually become more and more in tune with his pass-catchers over the course of the long 2020 season. He also didn't practice with the offense in the offseason during his recovery and was brought along slowly during training camp. Head Coach Bruce Arians can see how Howard is steadily getting back into the offensive flow.
"Obviously, practicing with [Brady] and doing all those things [helps], but just being comfortable that, 'I can run. I can do all those things. I can change directions,'" said Arians. "His run-after-catch was really good and it's just going to continue to build confidence."
Howard was a big part of the Bucs' passing attack in his first two seasons, though both were also cut short by injuries, causing him to miss eight games. He still caught 50 passes for 997 yards and 11 touchdowns and led all NFL tight ends in that span with 16.6 yards per catch. In his second season, when he put up a career-high 565 yards, he lined up detached from the line in the slot on 40% of his snaps as the Bucs looked to emphasize his speed and athleticism.
Howard caught another 34 passes for 459 yards and one touchdown in 14 games in 2019. In the offseason, after signing Brady but before trading for Gronkowski, the Buccaneers picked up Howard's fifth-year option for 2021. He was off to a good start before his injury against the Chargers last October; in fact, at the time he led all Buccaneer tight ends in catches (11), yards (146) and touchdowns (2). Gronkowski would go on to have a very productive season and start all 20 games, including the postseason, and he is clearly the starter again in 2021 when healthy. But there is still a lot more that Howard can bring to the Bucs' offense, with or without Gronkowski in the mix.
"He was scratching the surface [in 2020], I mean he was really coming on like gangbusters last year and then he got hurt," said Arians. "And that's a hard injury to get over. It's a 12-month job. He's doing a heck of a job right now."
Howard, who is scheduled to hit free agency for the first time after this season, is just trying to keep his momentum going in the right direction. And he's certainly due for a little bit more luck in the injury department, which could allow him to play 16 games in a season for the first time.
"Just to be able to build on it," said Howard about his strong outing in Philadelphia. "That's what it comes down to in the NFL. I've been here five years now – it's one of those things, you can never get too high or too low. Just stay in between. It's going to be an opportunity to make plays again and just do the routine things. Once I do those things, all of the other stuff will come. Just make the routine plays."