As 21-year-old Mike Evans ran in motion early in the third quarter, he called to veteran quarterback Josh McCown. The precocious rookie had seen something in the Redskins’ coverage and thought it should be exploited.
“Josh, just throw it up,” Evans remembered telling him. His quarterback assented.
A few seconds later, Evans caught a well-placed ball in the corner of the end zone. He had left cornerback Bashaud Breeland far behind, and Ryan Clark was in no position to catch him either.
Typical rookies don’t have the credibility to make calls like those, but in the Buccaneers’ 27-7 win over the Redskins on Sunday, Evans lifted himself out of the “typical” category and into a decidedly less-populated one. With seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns, he became the first rookie in more than a decade to accumulate 200 yards receiving and score twice doing it, breaking out and busting into the NFL’s elite.
“I have been around in the league for a while, and I just know I haven’t been with [a rookie] who’s been able to do some of the things he’s done,” Buccaneers Coach Lovie Smith said, “and he’s still young.”
Not since the Cardinals’ Anquan Boldin in 2003 had a rookie wide receiver paired two touchdowns with 200 receiving yards. Josh McCown — who played for Arizona from 2002 to 2005 — was there that day, too.
“I remember sitting there [in 2003] thinking, ‘Man, with this guy, we’ve got something special,’ ” McCown said. “Obviously Mike being a seventh pick, you have more of an emphasis . . . you expect it more, I guess. But certainly to take over and do the things he did today, it’s special.”
If expectations for the consensus first-team all-American — the Texas A&M star who became a legend with 279 yards against Alabama as a sophomore — were high heading into this season, Evans has met them over the past three weeks. After averaging four catches for 56 yards through his first six NFL games, Evans ascended, turning in back-to-back games of more than 120 yards in the two weeks before Sunday’s game.
As fantasy owners might tell you, a breakout in Landover was not entirely unexpected, especially given the porous nature of the Redskins’ defense. But that it came with such force that it lifted the lowly Buccaneers to a 20-point victory made it a seismic event, one that may foretell a scary future for NFC South secondaries already worried about fellow big-play wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Evans missed breaking Jackson’s team single-game receiving record by seven yards, though he was dismissive of the near-miss after the game.
“It was all right,” Evans said with a smile. “Vincent leads it, right? That’s cool. That’s a good guy.”
In that answer and others, Evans revealed the kind of easy confidence that would lead a rookie to make a strong suggestion to a veteran quarterback. It’s confidence, he said, that never had to be built through his rookie season, but it hasn’t suffered from nine games of experience either.
“I’m getting a better feel for it. I’ve got a great feel for the offense now, and it allows me to play fast,” Evans said. “As far as confidence, I’ll always play with that.”
The only question about Evans heading into the NFL draft was speed: The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the league combine, a little more lumbering than some shiftier receivers.
“I never knew I was slow until the draft,” Evans said.
But he showed ample speed Sunday, breaking away for catches of 56, 51 and 36 yards. The longest came when he was matched up with a linebacker in coverage. Evans blew Perry Riley Jr. away. He was too much for Breeland and Clark and the rest, too.
Evans said his favorite receiver to watch was Randy Moss, though his game is more in the Brandon Marshall mold than Moss’s speedy style. He learns from Moss anyway and watched the “30 for 30” documentary about him for inspiration Saturday night.
“The swagger he plays with, he has fun with the game, and I try to do that,” said Evans, who used one of Moss’s old touchdown celebrations Sunday.
He laughed off the notion it might soon be time to coin a touchdown dance of his own — trademark celebrations are usually out of an NFL rookie’s jurisdiction. Then again, 200-yard receiving games aren’t usually rookie territory either.