The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the deepest groups of pass-catching talent in the NFL – as do the Kansas City Chiefs, their Super Bowl LV opponent – and they needed all of it to get through the 2020 season and make it all the way to the final game.
That talent starts with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, who ranked second and fourth in the NFL, respectively, in receiving yards per game in 2019. However, halfway into the 2020 season the Buccaneers leader in receiving yard was second-year speedster Scotty Miller, with 400. Evans would eventually end up at the top of the list with 1,006 yards and his record-setting seventh straight 1000-yard season to open his career. Godwin finished with 840 yards.
It was that kind of a year for the Buccaneers, who dealt with a rash of injuries to all of the above receivers during the first half of the season. That was part of the motivation to add Antonio Brown in October, first and foremost as an insurance policy against any more receiver injuries. Interestingly, the Bucs had a different player lead the team in receiving yards in each quarter of the season. It was Miller (250) in Games 1-4, tight end Rob Gronkowski (233) in Games 5-8, Godwin (283) in Games 9-12 and Evans (393) in Games 13-16. That final quarter of the season is probably what the Bucs were trying to get to all along, with Evans recording those 393 yards and two touchdowns, Antonio Brown adding 315 yards and four touchdowns and Godwin posting 278 yards and four touchdowns.
In the fifth quarter of the season, it has been Godwin who has led the way. He is tied for the team lead with 14 catches and has the most receiving yards, with 233, averaging 15.9 yards per catch. He also had the six-yard end around that converted the final third down the Bucs needed to salt away the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Now Godwin is poised to play a lead role in the Super Bowl, one year after Bruce Arians and his staff devised a role for him that led to a breakout third season.
"It was really, really cool to kind of realize it, because it doesn't happen often," said Godwin of flourishing in his new role in 2019, and where it has led him to in 2020. "As a young guy in his third year, being an all-pro and being top three in receiving in all the major receiving categories, that's just such a blessing. Those are the things I dreamed about as a kid, just being in the NFL and making those types of plays and producing those types of numbers. But it's even cooler now, because this is the biggest dream I had when I was a kid, playing in the Super Bowl. To kind of have both of those dreams in back-to-back years, I can't even explain it."
Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver said it didn't take long for he and Arians to realize that Godwin could play a role very similar to Hall of Fame-bound Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald had adopted late in his career under Arians in Arizona. That included becoming the team's primary slot receiver in three-wide sets.
"When we got here, we evaluated everyone on the roster, evaluated all the guys in the previous season," said Garver. "We really saw something in Chris. He was a young player, but he really did a lot of good things. He really kind of fit into that mold of what we did with Fitzgerald at the Cardinals. We kind of saw him in that role as a guy who could be the 'F' for us, could be the slot when we have three-wide receiver sets, could be the 'Z' for us when we have two wide-receiver sets. [He] really brings a lot to the table just from physicality; he's going to be involved in the run game. [He] can make those grimy catches. [He] has the ability to run great routes and get off press coverage. That's really the fit that we saw in him."
That evaluation took place in January of 2019 after Arians had replaced Dirk Koetter as the Buccaneers' head coach. By March, Arians was famously proclaiming that he thought Godwin would be a 100-catch player in his offense, in part because his ability to play inside and outside, plus his blocking prowess in the run game, meant he would rarely come off the field. Godwin likely would have hit that mark, too, if he hadn't missed the last two-and-a-half games with a hamstring injury, instead finishing with 86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. His average of 95.2 receiving yards per game was second only to the Saints' Michael Thomas.
"With last season, I felt fortunate to step into a bigger role," said Godwin. "I had never played in the slot before, so I think that was a little bit of a question for me in terms of having a better feel for how to maneuver within, as a slot receiver. But I always have a ton of confidence in myself and my ability to make things shake no matter what."
Godwin lined up in the slot on 49% of his snaps in 2019, and that mark went up to 52% in 2020. When all three of Godwin, Evans and Brown were healthy in the weeks following the team's Week 13 bye, the Bucs used three-receiver sets frequently and that allowed them to use Godwin in a variety of creative ways. In 2019, he led all NFL players with 617 yards on targets over the middle of the field. Over the past two years, he has recorded 150 or more yards on nine different types of routes (out, hitch, post, etc.), the most of any player in the league.
"I think the adjustment was just understanding where guys are going to be coming from," said Godwin of learning to thrive inside. "When you're playing outside, you have the cornerback that's ahead of you and then you have the safety that's deep and the linebacker. Those are like the three guys that are closest to you. But when you're in the slot there's guys buzzing past you in both directions. There's safeties, there's corners, there's nickels – there's so many bodies that can be flying around you and you have to train your eyes to look in the right spots, make the right reads and adjust your routes accordingly. In this offense, there's a lot put on the plate of the slot receiver, not only in the pass game but also in the run game."
The Buccaneers have significantly upped their usage of pre-snap motion in the stretch run and the playoffs, and Godwin is by far the most likely player to be on the move. He went in motion of 18 of his 55 snaps in Green Bay, as an example. That also allows the Buccaneers to use the heady receiver in new ways that confuse the defense. For example, the Buccaneers converted a third-and-nine on their game-opening touchdown game in Green Bay on a Tom Brady floater out to the left flat that Godwin caught for a 14-yard gain. On the play, Godwin went in motion from the right slot to tight against the offensive line, which he often does on running plays. The Bucs played off that tendency and used play-action as Godwin slipped out into the open field.
"We try to make everything look the same as much as we can," said Garver. "We use Chris a lot in the run game. It's a play where we do bring him in there tight and make it look like a run situation. So really, that was kind of the whole idea of it. It's something that we've used in the past and something that we have had in in game plans before, we just haven't had opportunities to get to it. But I think that's the whole idea. As much as you can make your offense look the same, whether it's formations, whether it's motion, whether it's splits, that's kind of the whole idea of it."
Godwin had eight catches for 97 yards when the Bucs and Chiefs met in Week 12. And of all the team's primary receivers, only Godwin has seen his per-game production go up in the postseason from 70.0 yards to 74.3.
At this time last year, Godwin was still recovering from his December injury and wasn't able to play in his first Pro Bowl. This season, Godwin fought three injuries early – including a concussion, hip and quad strains and a fractured finger – but has hit his stride in the second half. He once again is an integral part of the Bucs' offense and now he has a chance to realize another dream and be a difference-maker in the Super Bowl.
"I take a lot of pride in playing this position, especially in this offense, and being the guy who's helping guys get lined up or helping guys in their blocking assignment, or just being the glue," he said. "That means a lot to me."