TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff gushed this spring over the rare talent they had in O.J. Howard. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said, “Man, I’ve never seen guys like that.” Quarterback Jameis Winston said the sky wasn’t even the limit for the tight end; it was the moon.
Yet 12 weeks into the 2019 season and in coach Bruce Arians’ new offense, Howard’s targets are down, and he looks lost. His 14.8% drop rate is among the highest of any player at any position this season.
Even after what looked to be a breakout game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10 (he caught four passes for 47 yards and a touchdown), on Sunday, Howard inexplicably juggled a pass behind his body, and it bounced into the hands of the Saints' Demario Davis for a pick.
“I didn’t focus it in. I took my eyes off the ball,” Howard told ESPN, adding that he might have been thinking about the next phase of the route before securing the catch.
He wasn't targeted for the remainder of the game, despite his having practiced for a big role all week.
"It's hard to say [what's wrong]," Arians said when asked about Howard, the Bucs’ 2017 first-round draft pick. "He's a talented, talented guy, but it's not showing up on Sundays.
“He’s had the misfortune of juggling a couple balls this season, but there’s six games for him to get out of that funk."
Heading into the season, there were questions about how Howard and fellow tight end Cam Brate would function in Arians’ offense. But all summer, the coaching staff offered reassurances that both would see their share of targets in the "tight-end-friendly" offense.
Sure enough, Brate saw them Sunday against a New Orleans Saints' defense playing Cover 2 and keying in on wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Brate caught 10 passes on 14 targets for 73 yards.
But Howard disappeared.
“I’m not really frustrated,” said Howard, who hauled in 11 touchdowns in 2017-18 but has one this season. “I mean, it is what it is. It’s, like, Week 11 or Week 12. I’ve already accepted my role, and I’m cool with my role, with whatever.”
What is his role? A lot more in-line blocking than he had been doing in former coach Dirk Koetter's offense. He’s chipping a lot more, too, as Arians rarely trots out extra offensive linemen for protection the way Koetter did. Is Howard happy with it?
“I get my targets. I have opportunities to make plays. Sometimes I make 'em, and sometimes I don’t,” Howard said. “The biggest thing for me is I try to stay focused and block well, do my job and do my assignment just to help the offense succeed.”
Howard believes a return to fundamentals could help him make more plays.
“That’s the biggest thing. It’s hard, man. You try to just, like, remember the basics,” Howard said. “Those things will always get you back going. When you start doing the little things over again and respecting it -- because when you get away from it, you realize how much you miss it if you don’t use it.”
Howard was the subject of multiple reports linking him to various teams before the trade deadline. The Bucs initially told teams that they weren’t open to dealing him, but then they started listening to offers.
“Sometimes it is [hard to tune out the reports], but at the end of the day, I just kind of realized that it’s part of the game,” Howard said. “It’s what we signed up for. It happens. It just comes with it. I just kind of look at it from that aspect of it and just be cool with that.”
Sources also told ESPN that there wasn't a consensus in the building on keeping Howard. Some key decision-makers raised the idea of trading him because of their deficiencies in other areas.
Howard said he has done his best to tune out the noise. Does he feel wanted now?
“Absolutely, because at the end of the day, there [were] a bunch of teams that reached out, that offered to trade for me, [and] they wouldn’t let me go,” Howard said. “They weren’t willing to trade me, so that tells you something right there what they think of me and the future for me, so I do feel like that.”
There might be some opportunities this weekend against the Atlanta Falcons, who have given up some big plays to tight ends. The Saints' Jared Cook had six catches for 74 yards, the Eagles' Zach Ertz had eight catches for 72 yards, the Panthers' Greg Olsen had five catches for 57 yards, the Rams' Gerald Everett had four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, and the Texans' Darren Fells had two catches for 20 yards, both of them touchdowns. Howard had four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in one game against Atlanta last season.
“He knows what he’s capable of,” Winston said. “I’ve got the utmost confidence in him. I know the coaches got a lot of confidence in him. We don’t want to make a little thing into a big thing."