An NFL head coach needs to make sure the players who are going to execute his game plan on Sunday are ready to play. Sometimes, though, he needs to pay a little attention to a player who isn't currently in that plan.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians put in a little bit of that long-term prep work with rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn early in the 2020 season. Arians hadn't found a role for Vaughn in the Buccaneers' offense just yet but wanted to make sure the third-round draft pick didn't lose his focus, or his enthusiasm.
"I told him a couple of weeks ago: 'Your time's going to come, and when it does it's going to be really, really important," Arians shared on Monday after the Buccaneers' 38-31 comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
Those words proved remarkably prescient. Pressed into a larger role due to Leonard Fournette being inactive and both LeSean McCoy and Kenjon Barner sustaining injuries during the game, Vaughn played 19 snaps and one was absolutely crucial to the game's outcome.
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With 11 minutes left in the game and the Bucs trailing by four, Mike Evans made a brilliant catch of a contested pass to gain 48 yards down to the Chargers' seven. Vaughn got the carry on first down and gained three yards but a false start by Tristan Wirfs moved it back to the nine. On second down, Brady ran a play whose first read was to tight end O.J. Howard but he chose to send the ball in Vaughn's direction instead.
It was not an easy catch, with Vaughn getting his arms full extended and hauling in the ball off to his side while running laterally away from Brady. It wasn't an easy road into the end zone, either. Vaughn had to turn after the catch, get past one defender and then lower his shoulder and power over another to cross the goal line. Vaughn had remembered to run the shallow route at top speed, as Brady had instructed in practice, and he turned back expecting the ball to be coming his way. When he turned it up after the catch, he knew he couldn't settle for anything short of pay dirt.
And thus the Bucs didn't have to settle for a field goal. They took the lead on Vaughn's play and never gave it back. That was, in every way, a 'really, really important' moment. Vaughn had listened to Arians words, and he was ready.
"That's just part of being patient, waiting your turn," he said. "It's always 'Next Man Up' mentality. Not only that, but you've got to make sure you're prepared, you've been studying, you've been working all week for that moment. Because that moment probably wouldn't have came yesterday; it probably would have came two, three weeks down the road. But I've always been prepared, always been studying my plays, and I was ready for the moment."
When the Buccaneers drafted Vaughn out of Vanderbilt in April, it seemed like he might step right into the spot vacated by Peyton Barber and share the backfield load with Ronald Jones. However, the Buccaneers subsequently signed veteran running back LeSean McCoy just before training camp and then jumped on Leonard Fournette when the Jaguars chose to cut him loose. Meanwhile, Vaughn had been slowed at the beginning of camp when he landed on the COVID-19 list. The backfield quickly developed into a pattern, with Jones starting, Fournette sharing carries and occasionally getting an extended run of snaps and McCoy serving as the third-down back.
That left little for Vaughn to do, and he played all of four special teams snaps over the Bucs' first three games. He was a game day inactive in Denver in favor of Barner, who was elevated from the practice squad and given a role on kickoff return.
Vaughn was active for the Chargers game in Fournette's absence but got just one carry in the first half. The Bucs threw a pass to Barner before throwing one to Vaughn. But Vaughn got more involved in the second half, with three more carries for three yards plus two receptions for 22 yards. Arians didn't hesitate to go to the rookie in the middle of a touch-and-go game.
"He's done a great job," said Arians. "He got a bunch of scout team reps and got better. A lot of guys would go down and pout, but he's kept his head up, he's worked extremely hard catching the ball [and] running the ball. We have all the trust in the world in Ke'Shawn."
Arians need not have worried about Vaughn pouting when he wasn't in the game plan. Vaughn started his college career at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt and he had a similar experience where he had to wait his turn with the Illini. He found out then that it could actually work in his favor, so he took the same approach when he found himself at the end of a crowded depth chart in the NFL.
"For the most part, I was just sitting back and taking it in, taking advantage of not just being thrown in the fire ASAP," said Vaughn. "[I was] just staying patient, taking advantage of being able to practice without playing, if that makes sense. I got to work on my craft at practice."
When your first touchdown pass comes out of the hand of the G.O.A.T, it's going to be a special moment. More importantly, though, making the play, and at such a crucial moment, is going to make it more likely that Arians will put him on the field and Brady will look in his direction again.
"I feel like I gained a little bit of his trust catching that ball when it meant the most," said Vaughn, who says he prefers to be called 'Sneak,' a childhood nickname bestowed by his father. "[It] kind of helped put us in the lead [and] helped us seal the game off. I feel like I gained his trust a lot with those little plays that I did make."
The Buccaneers may need Vaughn again very soon. They finished Sunday's win with just two healthy running backs, Vaughn and Jones. Arians said Fournette, who has an ankle injury, might be able to play in the game against Chicago on Thursday night. The Buccaneers are also monitoring McCoy's ankle injury and Barner's concussion, and would also have to make a move to get Barner on the 53-man roster if they want to use him again in games. Arians said he didn't expect to know what backs will be available this week until after a walk-through on Tuesday. With the short week, the team's travel on Wednesday and the COVID protocols, it's unlikely the team could add another free agent to the backfield prior to Thursday's kickoff.
What the Bucs do know if they need to rely on Vaughn again is that he'll be ready. He proved that on Sunday.