There it was, on the last Sunday in September, the future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for all the NFL world to see.
Jameis Winston to Mike Evans for 17 yards. First down.
Jameis Winston to Mike Evans for 11 yards. First down.
Jameis Winston to Mike Evans for 15 yards. First down.
Boom, boom, boom. Three plays. Three first downs. Two kids born in the mid-1990s. This was it — the two baby faces of the franchise.
Everyone in the organization had heard the jeers for the previous two years. In 2014, when Evans came out of Texas A&M and entered the draft before his redshirt junior year, he was often deemed too slow. Sure, his game could work in college, where his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame was just too big for athletes at that level, even in the Southeastern Conference. But in the NFL?
His hands would need to be better. He’d need to get faster. Can’t outmuscle these guys the way he did the secondaries at Alabama and Auburn.
As scouting reports are wont to be, they were, for the most part, wrong. All one really needs to look at is his 10-catch, 132-yard, 1-touchdown performance against a Los Angeles Rams defense that would, one week later, stifle the pass-happy Arizona Cardinals to know Evans was going to be one of the best receivers in the league.
“He’s a talented guy,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said of Evans before the Broncos’ 27-7 win against the Bucs this past Sunday. “(He’s) big, fast, he goes in that Calvin Johnson category, the Julio Jones category. The big, fast guys with the big catch radiuses.”
It is only Evans’ third year in the NFL, and one of the best cornerbacks in football is comparing him to future Hall of Fame receivers.
But while one former Texas A&M phenomenon is on a rapid ascent through the league, one couldn’t help but wonder where the other might be, the one who has been the best player on every football field he has ever stepped on.
Where in the world is Johnny Manziel?
Exactly where he was on Sunday — or any other day, for that matter — is anyone’s best guess. But it’s where he was not that is most telling: Manziel was not on a football field.
Manziel didn’t grow up like Evans. While Evans was raised by a single mother from the age of 9 after his father was murdered by his uncle, Manziel never had to endure such anguish.
Evans didn’t step on a football field until he was a senior in high school. Manziel had been an undeniable star since he was a freshman at Tivy High School, doing things that, in retrospect, ostensibly only the kid nicknamed Johnny Football could do.
A wide receiver, Manziel had been moved to quarterback in the fourth game of his sophomore year, and he went on to finish with this absurdly Manziel-ish stat line: 1,164 yards passing, 806 yards rushing, 408 yards receiving, 28 touchdowns.
He essentially doubled those numbers in each of the next two seasons, finishing his senior campaign with 3,609 yards through the air, 1,674 on the ground and 77 total touchdowns which, yes, included a touchdown reception and a kickoff return for a score. He was named the winner of the Mr. Texas Football award.
Every school, save, somewhat famously, the University of Texas, wanted Manziel.
Evans? He was a basketball player, averaging nearly a double-double. In his lone season on the gridiron, he caught 25 balls for 648 yards and 7 touchdowns. Good numbers, but not Manziel numbers.
But he did enough to land a scholarship from Texas A&M, where Manziel had flipped his commitment to after initially pledging to play for Chip Kelly at Oregon.
Both redshirted their freshman seasons, and in 2012, they became quite possibly the most lethal quarterback-to-receiver threat in college football.
Down went Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. Down went records owned by players with names such as Cam Newton, Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Down went all precedents for what freshmen could do on a football field.
Manziel became the first freshman to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season. In December, he won the Davey O’Brien Award and the Heisman Trophy. No freshman ever had won either.
His roommate, Evans, quietly was enjoying catching the oftentimes wild throws Manziel would make. In hindsight, scouts reviewing game film would say Evans bailed Manziel out. At the time, when Manziel was making electrifying plays, throwing caution to the wind, playing well against Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn and the big bad boys from the SEC, nobody really seemed to notice or care.
It was only a year later that many began to separate the two. Perhaps Evans, the precocious wideout with just three years of football experience, was the better talent.
Texas A&M’s pro day was expected to be Manziel-apalooza. Evans proved to be more impressive, and it showed in the draft, when Evans was taken seventh overall by the Bucs. Manziel slipped to No. 22 to the Cleveland Browns.
“That’s my quarterback, one of my best friends,” Evans said after the draft. “Me and him both being here, it’s a blessing. I gave him a big hug and told him I hope he gets off the board soon and I was happy to be a Buc.
“I was trying not to cry. I told everybody I wasn’t going to cry. It just hit me, and I couldn’t hold it back. My dream is coming true.”
Evans’ did. Manziel’s quickly turned into a nightmare.
The many questions about his maturity were answered, in some part, when Manziel was fined $12,000 for flipping the bird at a preseason game against the Washington Redskins. It was relatively harmless, as most of Manziel’s off-the-field incidents had been at the time, but still: How many relatively harmless slip-ups would it take for it to become a problem?
Before Manziel started his first game at A&M, he was arrested on three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, failure to identify and false identification. Not a big deal. College stuff.
Same with the next year, when Manziel was famously dismissed from the Manning Passing Academy for oversleeping.
So what? The kid overslept. He’s a college underclassman. Harmless.
This was still the kid who was such a good athlete he had been drafted in the 28th round by the San Diego Padres in 2014. A little oversleeping never killed anybody. Boys will be boys.
While Evans was enjoying a prolific first year in the NFL, despite catching passes from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, Manziel was wallowing on the bench. He wouldn’t start until week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and it was a largely unimpressive occasion: 10 of 18, 80 yards and 2 interceptions for a 27.3 passer rating. The Browns lost, 30-0.
Perhaps adding insult to injury, when Evans’ Bucs came to town, he caught a touchdown and flashed the famous Johnny Manziel money hands, a slight jab at his best friend and former roommate.
But while the rest of the football world was either writing off Manziel or preparing to do so, there was always — and still is — one staunch defender of Johnny Football: Mike Evans.
Before the two played against each other in October of their rookie seasons, Evans said on a conference call: “The game hasn’t really seen a quarterback like him, I don’t think. They say Doug Flutie and guys like that, but he can throw just as good as the 6-5 prototypical quarterbacks, and he can run like Michael Vick. He’s a great player. When he gets his shot, I think he’s never going to come off the field.”
On the field, Manziel proved to be, at best, slightly below average. It was when he did come off the field that issues arose. And still, even after Manziel was spotted at a Planet Hollywood casino the night before a game, after he was dropped by his marketing agency and two agents, after he was arrested on claims of domestic violence, after he was suspended the first four games of this season due to a breach of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, there was Evans.
He wore a Cleveland Browns Johnny Manziel jersey to a Texas A&M game. He had Manziel in his wedding this past February as a groomsman. He has insisted over and over and over again that Manziel is a once-in-a-generation talent.
It is, however, the Aggies star not named Manziel who seems to have become the once-in-a-generation talent.
In his rookie year, Evans’ 12 touchdowns were more than not just any rookie receiver in Bucs history, but any receiver who had ever suited up in Tampa Bay. He eclipsed 100 yards in each of his first three games. The last player to do that? Randy Moss, in 1998. The success that Evans has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, is such that there is no precedent for Tampa Bay.
After the first three weeks of the 2016 season, his 17 first downs were more than any other wide receiver, and his 301 receiving yards through that span are the most of any receiver in Bucs history.
If he eclipses 1,000 yards this year, which he is on pace to do with ease, he will become only the fourth player in the NFL to do so in his first three seasons.
Not even three years in, and Evans already is joining lists featuring the names of all-time greats, a burgeoning star whose only possible trajectory, it seems, is up.
“With receivers, man, there’s some guys — you either have a huge catch radius or you don’t,” Talib said. “That’s nothing you can learn in the NFL. I’m sure if you go watch Evans’ tape from seventh or eighth grade, I bet he was doing the same thing — catching jump balls and running past people, catching deep balls. It’s just that catch radius that makes him special.”
On Sunday, Talib and the Broncos limited Evans to just 5 catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns.
Another Aggie made news as well, though contrary to his usual penchant for headlines, it went by relatively unnoticed: Manziel’s suspension was over. He is officially eligible to play football again.
And so it is that one Texas A&M standout populates every statistical leaders list for his position.
The other just wants to play some ball.