With four minutes left in the third quarter last Sunday in Charlotte and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers leading the Carolina Panthers, 16-15, rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin ran a deep route down the middle of the field and Jameis Winston heaved the ball in his direction. The play was well-defended and it fell incomplete.
And that's the kind of random thing that gets Freddie Martino his opportunities.
As often happens with receivers who run deep routes but don't come up with the ball, Godwin jogged from his spot at the end of the play to the Bucs' sideline, rather than sprinting back to the huddle for the next play. He got a rest and Martino came in to take his place. That meant, in this case, Martino was playing the "Z" receiver position in the Buccaneers' offense, and on the next snap he actually went in motion, right to left, before the snap.
From that spot, Martino ran about 20 yards downfield, crossing the 50 into Carolina territory and catching a medium-range pass from Winston. Martino then broke away from a potential tackler and cut back off the sideline to elude more Panthers before finally getting dragged down at the Carolina 34 for a gain of 39 yards. It was the longest play on a 67-yard drive that set up Patrick Murray's 26-yard field goal to give the Buccaneers a four-point lead as the fourth quarter began.
On that play, Martino was filling in for Godwin, who himself was starting in place of an injured DeSean Jackson. At other times, Martino has to play the "X" position when Mike Evans needs a break, and he's also capable of operating out of the slot. Martino is a do-everything reserve for the Buccaneers, and lately he's been doing a lot of everything. And doing it well.
"Freddie is one of those guys that is just always there when you need him and always seems to play a little bit better than you think he is going to," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He knows our system, can play all the spots [and] he is a tough guy. Freddie has been playing really solid on special teams. He has been covering kicks, covering kickoffs [and] making tackles."
The Buccaneers may very well need more of Martino in Sunday's season finale against the New Orleans Saints. Godwin had a big game in Carolina with 98 receiving yards, but he also suffered an ankle injury in the second half and has yet to practice this week. Jackson, who is also recovering from an ankle injury, is trying to come back for the finale and has practiced on a limited basis this week. His return is not guaranteed. Rookie tight end O.J. Howard, who was emerging in a big way in the season's second half, is now on injured reserve. Tight end Cam Brate, a high-volume pass-catcher when healthy, has been pushing through hip and knee injuries on a weekly basis. That leaves Evans, Martino and undrafted rookie Bobo Wilson as the surest options, in terms of health, for the Bucs on Sunday.
That could prove to be a good thing for the buccaneers. When Martino gets his shots, he tends to make big plays. Last year, he got on the field against Chicago in Week Six, playing 17 snaps in that game after seeing just 71 snaps during the first eight weeks of the season. He helped the Bucs pull away to a 36-10 decision with a 43-yard touchdown catch. He had catches of 25 and 17 yards later in the season and finished with an average of 17.8 yards per reception, albeit on just eight grabs. This year, he has four catches at an average of 21.8 yards each. In two years as a Buc, 12 of the 16 passes thrown his way have resulted in completions, an excellent 75.0% rate.
"Sometimes if you are that fourth or fifth receiver, you just don't get a whole lot of opportunities to get balls thrown to you," said Koetter. "Then all of the sudden you do and [people say], 'Hey, that guy is not too bad!' In Freddie's case, it is really not that unexpected or surprising."
In fact, Koetter has been a big fan of Martino's since he arrived in Atlanta in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of North Greenville University. Koetter was the Falcons' offensive coordinator at the time, under Head Coach Mike Smith, who is now Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator. Martino bounced back and forth between the practice squad and the active roster in his rookie season, a rather common journey for undrafted receivers, but the Falcons definitely saw promise in him. He was with the Eagles in the spring of 2016, but when Philadelphia cut him after the draft Koetter's Bucs jumped on him immediately.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
"[He's a] small-school guy, doesn't say much, had a lot to learn, hung in there, hung in there, hung in there," said Koetter. "He did the same things he's doing [here] in Atlanta. So when he became available and we got him, we were happy to get him."
This summer, the Buccaneers' final spot on the receiver depth chart came down to Martino, whose size made him a better backup to all of the receiver spots, and the smaller Bernard Reedy, who offered value in the return game. Reedy got the spot but Martino remained in town on the practice squad. When he got a midseason promotion, Martino made an immediate impact on special teams, recording three tackles in his first two games. He now has seven kick-coverage stops, which has him tied for the team lead despite his late start.
"Actually, he kind of got off to a slow start this year; we didn't keep him on our original 53," said Koetter. "He was on the practice squad because he didn't seem to be his normal, productive self in training camp. But as the year's gone on, he's gotten back to that. It's really cool to see how much time he spends with Nate Kaczor, our special teams coach. To see your fourth or fifth wide receiver down there making tackles on kickoffs and punts, that's a pretty cool thing."
Martino's previous body of work kept him in the Bucs' good graces despite that slow start, and his extremely good work on special teams has solidified his spot on the 53-man roster since his promotion. That alone makes him a valuable player to the Buccaneers, but his relief work at receiver in Carolina – which also included another 18-yard catch on that field goal drive – are an indication that he can provide more on offense if needed. This weekend, the Bucs may very well need Martino.