There was a time, about seven years ago, when it looked like the incredible career of Arizona Cardinals icon Larry Fitzgerald was winding down. If that had proved to be true, Fitzgerald still would have walked into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year eligible.
That's when Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona and convinced a somewhat reluctant Fitzgerald to move into the slot as his primary home in the Cardinals' offense. It took a couple seasons for the move to really take hold, but from 2015-17 – when he was between the ages of 32 and 34 – Fitzgerald averaged 108 catches for 1,131 yards and seven touchdowns. Fitzgerald is still playing in 2020, he's now the second-leading receiver of all time and the Hall of Fame is probably going to have to send a private jet to expedite the process at this point.
So when Bruce Arians took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019 and said early in the spring that he saw Chris Godwin as being able to flourish in his offense the same way Fitzgerald did, it was a telling moment. Arians' prediction that Godwin would catch 100 passes in his attack set the fantasy football world on fire, and likely would have come true if not for a late-season hamstring injury to the then-third-year receiver.
If being moved into the slot carried a certain stigma in 2013, it certainly doesn't anymore. Godwin finished second in the NFL in receiving yards per game in 2019 and made his first Pro Bowl, and he got more yards on passes over the middle than any other player in the NFL. The arrival of Tom Brady, who has had wild success targeting slot receivers during his own Hall of Fame career, seemed to portend even greater things for Godwin in 2020.
The problem, of course, has been injuries. Godwin missed one game in September due to a concussion, then pulled a hamstring to cost himself two more outings and most recently missed a fourth game due to a fractured finger. Godwin hurt his left index finger while putting his hand on the turf during a touchdown catch in Las Vegas in Week Seven, subsequently had surgery to insert pins in the finger and sat out the Bucs' Monday night win over the Giants. With the pins still in his finger and with a splint over the top, Godwin returned against the Saints on in Week Nine and caught three passes for 41 yards.
All of which has earned him another comparison to Fitzgerald, this time from Bucs Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver, who was on Arians' staff in Arizona. Garver was impressed that Godwin was able to play less than two weeks after his surgery and with his finger obviously still causing him some pain.
"He's unbelievable," said Garver. "There's not very many guys like him. I was very fortunate to spend time with Larry Fitzgerald, and I feel like Chris and Larry have a lot of those similarities, just as far as their mental toughness but also the ability to push through those things. But it really is remarkable what he's doing, right? He had to have that surgery and he's got to catch the ball. You've got to use your hand to catch the ball, and when he said he was good to go I trust him. There was really maybe only one time during the game that I really saw it affect any part of his game. It's tremendous."
Godwin admitted that the injury and the splint forced him to catch the ball in a different way and affected his overall movements, but said he felt comfortable that he could contribute in a positive way.
"Injuries happen and that's not really something that I can control," said Godwin. "The only thing I can do is focus on getting back, which is what I was doing. I was just glad to be out there with my boys. If I'm out there playing, it's because I feel confident in my ability to go out and help the team. I'm not going to put myself at a disadvantageous position, nor am I going to put my team in a compromisable position. If I'm out there, it's because I feel confident in my ability to help my team."
Godwin's return coincided with the Buccaneers debut of wide receiver Antonio Brown, who added three catches for 31 yards. It all happened on a forgettable night for the Bucs – or at least one they hope to forget – as the visiting New Orleans Saints rolled to a 38-3 victory and snatched back first place in the NFC South. The offense, like every other phase of the team's performance, had a rough night and ended up with a dramatic imbalance between passing and rushing. However, presence of Godwin, Brown, Mike Evans and a number of other top-tier pass-catching weapons is one of the team's greatest reasons for hope down the stretch.
"I think we have so many weapons between running backs, tight ends and receivers that we can go to," said Godwin. "I feel like that's kind of our bread-and-butter, but I think as we continue to go throughout the season we're going to have to do a better job running the ball, receivers are going to have to do a better job blocking, we're going to have to be all on the same accord in order for us to get to where we want to go. There's some really good teams out there, some really good defenses, and you can't just be one-dimensional. So it's our job to make sure we're as balanced as possible."
There is room for so much more production in the Bucs' passing attack as some injured players start to get healthy again. Godwin and Evans have only 320 and 437 receiving yards respectively, after both blew by the 1,000-yard mark last year. Brown has returned to the league in good shape and has a history of outsized production. Scotty Miller is a legitimate deep threat who has been quiet in recent weeks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was on a roll before Sunday night's game. Running back Leonard Fournette is a real asset on check-downs. At some point the question becomes if all of those targets will diminish somewhat the impact of Godwin and Evans, who formed the league's most productive wideout duo in 2019.
"Honestly, I think we'll be fine," said Godwin of the addition of Brown. "Me and Mike, we're no stranger to that. I think we're coming in with the same mentality that we've always had. We've got a bunch of great guys in this locker room that are solely focused on winning, and when you have a chance to add another really great talent, you do that. We're looking forward to the opportunity learn, grow and fit him into the offense."
Garver doesn't shy away from the fact that the Bucs' deep stable of pass-catchers means there will occasionally be low-volume games for one proven star or another. It's worth noting that with Godwin, Evans and Jameis Winston driving the league's top passing attack in 2019, the team still went 7-9. The 2020 Bucs are 6-3 and aiming to break the franchise's playoff drought as their top priority. Arians said on Wednesday that the best thing about the Bucs' offense, with its multitude of productive weapons, is its flexibility, which allows the team to approach any particular outing with a different game plan tailored to the opposition.
"To me, that's just the way it is," said Garver. "Instead of just having one guy and we're just going to feed that guy – in my opinion, it actually makes it a little bit more challenging to the defense. Because, okay, they want to try to take one guy out of the game? All right, well we've got enough guys that are going to step up and make the plays."
There's little doubt, however, that Godwin will be a featured part of the team's attack in the season's second half, presuming he gets some better luck in the injury department. He's the Bucs' best weapon out of the slot and he was the team's best receiver after the catch, though the arrival of Brown makes that an open competition. As Garver notes, he's also extremely tough, and that shows up in the team's blocking schemes as well. Even with a compromised left hand, Godwin tied for the team lead in targets in his return. Though it won't be this season, Godwin may eventually join Fitzgerald in the 100-catch club. For now, he just wants to be part of a winning effort.