Jameis Winston thought about it before the game and during the game, but at the time it happened, it was likely the furthest thing from his mind.
Winston's final pass of 2017 was a 39-yard touchdown connection with rookie wideout Chris Godwin that gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 31-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. Very few of Winston's other 441 passes during the season were bigger than that one, perhaps none. His second-to-last completion of 2017 was a 10-yard strike to Adam Humphries that gave Humphries just the second 100-yard game of his career. That throw, too, was particularly memorable for one of his receivers.
But when it comes to career milestones, it was Winston's third-to-last completion of 2017 that was most important. This one was a deep out to wide receiver Mike Evans, good for a 16-yard gain that pushed the ball across midfield on the game-winning drive. For Evans, the play hardly could have been designed better.
The fourth-year wideout came into the 2017 season finale needed 54 receiving yards to break the 1,000-yard barrier. That 16-yard catch with 40 seconds remaining put him at 55 yards for the night. He wouldn't be targeted again but he didn't need it; his final tally for 2017 was 1,001 receiving yards.
"I was so happy when I found out he got that yardage," said Winston. "My whole mission yesterday was to get him those yards, and that kind of messed up my game a little bit, but I'm so happy that he got it. It's great how football works."
On one hand, Evans' 1,001 yards represent his lowest season total in his four NFL years. On the other hand, it's still quadruple digits, and that makes four seasons in a row reaching that mark. As such, Evans joins such NFL luminaries as Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only three players in league history to open their careers with four consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Evans has followed a pattern almost exactly like the one that started Green's career in Cincinnati. Green had 1,057 receiving yards in 2011 as a rookie before improving to 1,350 in Year Two and 1,426 in Year Three. In his fourth season, Green missed three games due to injury and barely got past the mark, with 1,041 yards. Evans' first four seasons: 1,051, 1,206, 1321 and 1,001. Green ran his streak to five straight 1,000-yard seasons before falling short in 2016. Moss' career-opening streak, an NFL record, ran for six seasons (1998-2003).
After his two seasons of trending upward, Evans also ran into some adversity in 2017, including a one-game suspension for a late hit on Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore in New Orleans in Week Nine. Evans and Lattimore spent most of Week 17 matched up against each other, and Evans found it particularly fitting that it was against the Saints that he finally got past 1,000.
"They told me I got it," said Evans after the game, in a locker room that was mostly celebratory due to the victory. "That is just how our season has been. If I wouldn't have gotten suspended, I probably would've got it [earlier] and this is the team I got suspended against. I am just happy that I was able to get it. This is history, so looking back on it, I am happy I got it."
As Winston noted, he was not shy about trying to get the ball to Evans, who was locked in a very physical battle with Lattimore and other Saints defenders all evening. Winston and Evans barely missed hooking up on a deep ball down the left sideline in the second quarter, a play that briefly left the receiver shaken up. Evans also grabbed at his left hamstring and missed some playing time on a pass into the end zone later in that same drive.
Even though Evans returned to the game, he had just two catches for 21 yards when the Buccaneers lined up at their own five-yard line, trailing 24-23 and needing to drive the length of the field in two minutes without a timeout. Evans had two nine-yard grabs on the drive, including one that converted a third down at the Bucs' 26. The 16-yarder that got Evans the mark was the biggest play in the drive before the game-winning bomb to Godwin.
Winston was pleased that, after possibly trying too hard to get the ball to Evans earlier in the game, his teammates' record-setting catches came in the service of a critical drive.
"Everything counts, every play counts, so it was a great way for him to get it," said Winston.