WR Edell Shepherd's game-winning touchdown catch against Washington didn't surprise QB Chris Simms
Let's take a look at the people who were not surprised that the biggest catch of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers season, through 10 weeks, would be hauled in by a young man named Edell Shepherd.
First, of course, there's Shepherd himself.
The third-year receiver, undrafted out of San Jose State in 2002, had all of six receptions for 50 yards as an NFLer before last Sunday's game against Washington. He had spent 2002 on the Chicago Bears' practice squad, much of 2003 on the Bucs' practice squad and all of 2004 on Tampa Bay's injured reserve list. It's safe to say he's not as well-known in NFL circles as, say, Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton or Ike Hilliard.
All of that meant little to the relentlessly upbeat Shepherd, who figured the only thing he was missing was an opportunity.
"For me personally, I knew what I could do so it wasn't a surprise to me," he said. "Hopefully it will help my status with the team, letting them know that when my number is called I can make a play."
He made the play when the Bucs called his number on Sunday. Earlier in the game, which had developed into a shootout, Shepherd had run a deep route over the middle and used the fingertips of both hands to snare a 46-yard pass from Chris Simms, setting up a Hilliard touchdown. Now, the Bucs were trailing 35-28 and Simms was trying to lead a last-chance, two-minute drill.
With the clock ticking down to one minute left in regulation, Shepherd ran a quick out-and-up along the right sideline. Cornerback Walt Harris recovered but was a step behind the receiver. Simms threw a pretty spiral towards the end zone and Shepherd, leaping as he crossed the goal line, made the touchdown catch in midair, Harris draped on his back.
The Bucs eventually went for the two-point conversion following that score and won the game, 36-35. The victory ended a two-game skid for Tampa Bay and, at 6-3, put them right back into the thick of the NFC playoff chase, instead of at 5-4, the spot to which the Redskins were relegated.
Galloway has obviously had many huge catches for the Buccaneers this season, including 78 an 80-yard touchdowns, and more of an impact overall than any other player on offense. But Shepherd's catch and Mike Alstott's resulting two-point run could prove to be the turning point of the season.
Others not surprised by that turn of events: the rest of the Shepherd clan.
Shepherd says his phone has been ringing off the hook since his big catch, but it hasn't bothered him because it has invariably been a proud family member on the other end of the line. He knows his loved ones never doubted him, even when he was a virtual unknown in Bear and Buccaneer training camps.
"Everybody in my family is happy for me because they know how hard I've worked," he said. "I actually got an opportunity to make a play and I did it."
But perhaps the man that was least surprised that Shepherd came up big was the man who delivered the fateful pass. Simms has been singing the slight young receiver's praises since an eye-opening first week of training camp in 2004, a fact Simms reminded the press of on Wednesday. Both young players had to wait their turns thanks to breakout performances by Brian Griese and Michael Clayton, and now Galloway, but they appear to be emerging together this season.
"I realized he was going to be a big-play threat down the field," said Simms of that '04 camp experience. "He just needed a few opportunities to get the ball down there and he came through, and now he's kind of made his mark. I had confidence in him."
Shepherd has undoubtedly enjoyed having his own confidence justified, and he's probably gotten a kick out of all the phone calls. It's probably most important, however, that his team's quarterback is a believer. All the routes Shepherd has run for Simms over the past few years surely must stick in the young passer's mind when he's making a read downfield at a critical moment.
"Me and Chris have been throwing together for almost three years now," said Shepherd. "I've been here and he was a back-up and I was on the practice squad. We had a lot of time to throw with each other and it's just natural now."
The NFL got a glimpse on Sunday of how well the young lefty can throw the deep ball. Shepherd already knew that Simms could find him anywhere on the field. Even when running what is probably going to be a clearing route, Shepherd keeps his eyes peeled for a possible pass his way.
"Deep routes, deep comebacks, deep outs," said Shepherd, counting off some of the pinpoint throws Simms can make. "It's just opened up a whole lot of things we can do and it's harder for defenses to stop us when we can do a lot of things. It helps a lot."
Was Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden surprised when it was Shepherd who came through at the end Sunday? Probably not too much. He has always been complimentary of Shepherd's skills and considered his loss in training camp last summer to a foot injury more of a problem than most observers.
Gruden was certainly impressed with the catch, and with Shepherd's play overall. He lauded the young receiver on the "business attitude" he had brought to the week of practice leading up to Sunday's game. And he didn't beat around the bush when asked if Shepherd's three grabs for 87 yards against Washington had earned him more playing time in the coming weeks.
"Damn right it does," said Gruden. "If [he's] going to come out and play like that, [only] an idiot wouldn't put him on the field. The guy's fast and the guy's a good player. You play good, you get a chance to play more. That's the way life is."
Hopefully, one of Shepherd's relatives called him Wednesday night to relay that quote from Gruden. Those words certainly must be encouraging to a young player who has been hoping for an opportunity for some time now. However, he's not taking anything for granted. His best approach, he knows, is to show that same business attitude on the practice field during the week.
"I don't know," said Shepherd on his prospects of more playing time. "We'll see on Sunday. I'm going to work hard in practice, and hopefully when you make stuff look good in practice you have an opportunity to play in the game."