Since Tom Brady arrived in Tampa in 2020, he and Mike Evans have played 42 games together, and in those games they have hooked up for 219 completions, resulting in 3,122 yards and 33 touchdowns. It is undeniable that the greatest quarterback of all time and the best offensive player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise history have enjoyed a fruitful journey together, and they have the Super Bowl rings to show for it.
However, they – and by extension, the Buccaneers – have hit a bumpy patch of road, with the two superstars having more trouble than usual connecting on the field. The numbers from the Bucs' 23-17 overtime loss in Cleveland are stark: Brady targeted Evans a robust nine times, but that only resulted in two receptions for 31 yards. In contrast, the 13 passes Brady threw Chris Godwin's way produced 12 catches, 110 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, any one game can produce fluky results, and it was only a month ago that Brady was hitting Evans 15 times for 219 yards over a two-game span. Still, Evans' catch-per-target rate is down this season from 64.2% in 2020 and 64.9% in 2021 to 60.0%. When Todd Bowles was questioned on Monday as to why the Brady-Evans connection might be a bit off right now, the Bucs' head coach didn't bother to argue with the premise. Instead, he stressed how important it is to keep the issue from lingering as the Bucs face a run of six games that will decide their playoff fate.
"That's a good question," said Bowles. "Some of them were defensive calls, some of them we just missed it here and there. We've got to get that fixed. We've got to get them back on the same page. That struggle, it showed up yesterday. I'm not saying it was anybody's fault, but it did show up yesterday and it showed up a few games before that. We've got to get that taken care of. That's crucial for our success."
Given how tenuous the Browns' comeback was – they needed an incredible fourth-down one-handed catch from tight end David Njoku to tie it the last minute of regulation – this was a game that could have turned in another direction with just one or two plays ending differently. And when contemplating what those plays were, it's hard not to picture a series of balls going just out of Evans' reach as he raced down the sideline with a step on his defender.
After the Bucs reached the Browns' 30-yard line late in the second quarter, trailing 10-7, Brady took two consecutive deep shots to Evans down the right sideline, but neither connected. After a six-yard catch by Godwin on third-and-10, the Bucs had to settle for a game-tying field goal. Early in the third quarter Brady did find Evans for a 28-yard crosser that ignited the Bucs' go-ahead touchdown drive, and another sideline shot early in the fourth quarter drew a pass interference penalty on Browns cornerback Martin Emerson. But one more time later in the fourth and then again in overtime Brady looked for the kill shot to Evans only to have them fall to the turf out of his reach.
While it's strange to see Brady and Evans missing more often than connecting, Bowles said the issue isn't baffling. It's just something that needs to be worked out, and sooner rather than later.
"No, it doesn't baffle me," he said. "We've just got to get it fixed. It's not necessarily them two, it's quite a few other people with it as well. We've just got to get on the same page. And we're not on the same page and it shows."
It's not as if Brady has been unable to exploit Evans' talents all season. The ninth-year receiver still leads the team and ranks 14th in the NFL with 70.2 receiving yards per game. He has eight catches of 25 or more yards, more than Cooper Kupp, Tee Higgins, CeeDee Lamb or Amon-Ra St. Brown. Evans' touchdowns are down, but that's a fickle stat and this year it's partially driven by the Buccaneers' overall scoring malaise. After averaging a league-best 30.4 points per game during the 2020-21 seasons, the Bucs have dipped to 18.2 this season.
And that's actually the bigger picture. The Buccaneers have quite a few things they need to improve upon on offense in the brief number of weeks lying ahead, most notably their conversion rate on third downs. Of course, a more productive connection between Brady and Evans would certainly be a part of that solution.
"Well, we have to," said Bowles of getting more output on offense. "Number one, we've done it before. We have to get on the same page and stop making mistakes. We've got to coach it better and play it better. There is no secret formula to getting this turned around the right way. We have to make plays, we have to call it right, we have to execute it the right way, we've got to stop committing penalties. Obviously, it's a broken record at this point, but as coaches and players that's what you go back to. You go back to your fundamentals and you play ball. That's all it is."