O.J. Howard was just beginning to look like one of the NFL's next great pass-catching tight ends last year, in his second season since being drafted 19th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2017, when an ankle injury ended his campaign 10 games in. At the time Howard was fifth in the league among qualifying tight ends in receiving yards (565), tied for third in touchdown catches (five) and second in yards per target (11.77). His 16.6 yards per catch was the best among the league's tight ends, and that would hold up through the rest of the season.
In the offseason, Howard quickly returned to full speed, as his injury did not require surgery. The Buccaneers got a new coaching staff led by Bruce Arians, and while Arians' offenses in Arizona rarely featured big tight end performances that was thought to be a matter of personnel. Arians had never had a tight end duo like Howard and Cam Brate, and it was easy to project that he would utilize these new toys with great frequency. Howard still looked a star in the making.
Through five games of the new season, however, Howard's numbers are down significantly from a year ago. He averaged 56.5 yards per game in 2019, very good numbers for a tight end. This year, that number has been cut almost exactly in half, to 28.2 yards per game. He's actually catching the passes thrown his way at a higher rate (78.6% compared to 70.8% last year), but his targets per game have dropped from six in 2018 to about three this year. In the last two games combined he has four catches for 43 yards, even as the Bucs' passing attack over produced 589 yards in those contests.
Howard admits to being a bit surprised at his lack of opportunities so far.
"A little bit," he said on Monday. "But it's one of those things where you've just got to stay at it. Sometimes we play teams that don't give us what we thought we were going to get on film. It's one of those things where you've just got to keep going and hope that you get the good looks."
Maybe what Howard needed to jumpstart his season was a little midweek reminder for everyone about how great his hands are. That reminder actually took place at a baseball game, as Howard was on hand at Tropicana Field on Tuesday night to watch the Tampa Bay Rays try to stave off elimination in their playoff series against the Houston Astros. If you do not live in a cave, chances are you already know that the game broadcast happened to catch Howard making a dazzling one-handed grab of a foul ball hit by Austin Meadows.
Howard had come down to the area down the rightfield line from his original seats to meet up with a friend. He actually thought about not getting his hands hurt when the ball started coming his direction, but in the end instincts took over.
"It was just one of those things where the ball was right there and I looked up," said Howard. "It was just right in my vicinity. It was one of those things where I reached back and it hit the palm of my hand. It was clean catch. The adrenaline was going…it was just like, 'Wow!'"
It wasn't completely surprising that Howard made the catch, even away from the gridiron. He played rightfield in high school, so he was even in roughly his usual territory. But the highlight picked up a lot of steam on social media and the video spread quickly. Howard heard from a lot of people around the NFL about it, including reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes. Arians wondered if Howard's fingers were okay, as a coach would do. And, of course, everyone wanted to know if that great snag might be the thing that gets him going on the football field.
"Hopefully so," said Howard, playing along. That's what I need, man, a little boost. Why not just keep it rolling and take it into my everyday life and take it to the football field?"
Of course, what Howard really needs is the football to come his way more often. That's a function of scheme, and of defensive reactions and of Howard's own work in his routes to gain separation.
"Yeah, it's just a matter of opportunities," said Arians. "He's going out for passes, it's just whether or not he's getting open."
Arians said the Bucs came into the last game with five to eight plays scheduled to utilize tight ends but the Saints defense didn't give them the look they wanted to call those plays. Some of it also had to do with the line of scrimmage, as certain plays are easier to use in certain parts of the field. But he definitely does want to get Howard involved because his combination of size and speed can be a real problem for some defenders.
"Yeah, you try to get the mismatches you're looking for," said Arians. "We've got three-wide receiver, two-tight end sets [with] no backs we've been using to try to get those guys involved. It's just a matter of where the ball goes. They're not doing anything wrong, that's for sure."
Added Howard: "That's part of it. Nobody's really going to keep it vanilla for you the whole time. They're going to show different looks, they're going to bring different pressures that you don't expect. But that's why sometimes you have plays that are designed to be [able to work] against any coverage or any look you get."
Howard's one catch at the baseball game on Tuesday was as many as he had in the Superdome on Sunday. Hopefully the former is a sign that we won't be seeing too much more of the latter.