S John Howell has been a top contributor on special teams this year and will now get a chance to make an impact on defense
Every morning a pickup truck pulls up to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training facility, and out of it steps a casually dressed man. Khaki shorts, a t-shirt and a ball cap – simple dress for a simple guy.
"What you see is what you get with me," says John Howell, in his fourth year of reporting to work at One Buccaneer Place. "There aren't too many surprises. I'm just a simple guy – I don't have a lot of flash. That's just the way I am."
At first glance, it looks like he might belong at a fishing tournament. As he puts on his pads and buckles his chin strap, however, Howell knows he's right where he belongs. When the Buccaneer defense takes the field at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, this self-proclaimed simple guy will be the starting free safety.
"I'm really excited," said Howell, who will replace injured starter Jermaine Phillips. "This is what you look forward to, being in a backup role. You don't want to see anybody get hurt, but when the time comes and it's your chance to go out and prove what you can do, it's really exciting. I'm confident, I feel good and there's no better defense to be on than this one in Tampa Bay."
Howell's road to this exciting day has been filled with hard work. A safety and special teams ace at Colorado State, Howell, a fourth-round draft pick, first made his mark in the kicking game, as many young players do. Howell played in 14 games during his 2001 rookie season, and when injuries gave him an opportunity to start against Pittsburgh he recorded a team-high 13 tackles.
That was a nice cameo for Howell, but it didn't lead to a long-term starting job, as stalwarts Dexter Jackson and John Lynch continued to man the safety positions well. Still, Howell contributed significantly as a role player during the Buccaneers' Super Bowl run in 2002 – his open-field tackle of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick during another defensive cameo proved to be a signature play of the dominant Tampa Bay defense that season.
Howell battled injuries in 2003 and finished the season on injured reserve, but he has been one of the team's top special teamers this season, as well as a valuable fill-in at safety. With Phillips out for an indeterminate period of time with a forearm injury, Howell, now a seasoned vet, is ready to step in and make an impact once again. That job begins today against the 49ers, a team that the Buccaneers cannot afford to overlook.
"You have to go into every game feeling like you can make a big impact," said Howell. "The 49ers are 1-8, but that's not the team that they are - they're a lot better team than their record shows. This is a team we can't take lightly – they have a talented tight end and running back, and a good quarterback.
"You can't take anything for granted in the NFL. If we take this team lightly they're going to give us some trouble. We know it's going to be a challenge and we look forward to it."
Though the Bucs re-signed Jackson this week, Howell is the natural replacement for Phillips. He has a very good grasp of Tampa Bay's defense, which is comforting for Buccaneer coaches, who need a disciplined unit to make their schemes work. Howell also has some other talents that should help him excel in the starting role.
"I think my strength is in my tackling," said Howell. "I like to think that I'm a pretty decent open-field tackler. I always try to hustle to the ball – I want my effort to speak for itself."
The Buccaneers will need that kind of effort against the San Francisco offense today. The 49ers' offensive personnel has proven quite dangerous this season. Running backs Kevan Barlow and Maurice Hicks are a potent combination, and Tim Rattay is an underrated quarterback. Tight end Eric Johnson is the primary focus of the Niner offense, though. He has quietly emerged this season as a dangerous weapon, and the Buccaneer defense will call on Howell to slow him down.
"All 11 guys on defense are going to be involved in stopping Johnson," said Howell. "It's just another challenge – both Kansas City and Atlanta had really talented, athletic tight ends. Johnson is equally as challenging. We just have to rise up to the challenge."
Howell has been rising up to challenges throughout his career. No job has been too big or too small for this simple guy from Nebraska who steps into the spotlight today against the Niners.