Chris Godwin back to being Bucs’ ‘bloodline’ year after ACL injury
Barely a year after tearing his ACL, the Bucs receiver has made himself a model of consistency, and as Tampa Bay seeks to clinch a division title with a win Sunday at home against Carolina (1 p.m. ET on FOX), he has become the team’s most productive offensive weapon.
“It’s definitely been a journey, to say the least,” said the 26-year-old Godwin, who now has 89 catches for 848 yards and three touchdowns despite missing two games in September with a hamstring injury. “[The ACL anniversary] just recently passed, and I’m grateful to be on this side still going strong. It was a dark day for me when it happened, but to have been able to make it back … I’m just grateful for this journey. I’m grateful to be here towards the end of the season playing for something that’s meaningful.”
The Bucs (7-8) have fallen short of high expectations, with Tom Brady back at age 45 and chasing another championship. The offense isn’t nearly the dominating unit it was in 2020 on the way to a Super Bowl championship, or even last season on the way to a franchise record 13 wins. Downfield passing has given way to safer dumpoffs and screens, but Godwin is arguably the team’s best option on the latter.
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There was a time there was no guarantee he’d be a part of this offense. Godwin tore his ACL after taking a hit against the Saints in Week 15 last year, undergoing surgery Jan. 3. He sought a much more ambitious timetable to return than most players, targeting the team’s season opener against Dallas, barely eight months after surgery.
“It’s just self-determination,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s hard on himself. He’s a worker, regardless. He’s going to overcome all odds, and he’s going to do everything he needs to do. He works on his craft constantly. He tried to get back as fast as he could. He didn’t take days off. He worked overtime, triple-time probably. Getting back to normal, you forget what he went through, because you’re seeing him right now … I don’t know if a normal person could have [gone] through that. I don’t think I could have gone through that.”
The Bucs believed in Godwin enough that even as he faced surgery and rehab, they signed him to a three-year, $60 million contract in March, with $40 million guaranteed. By design, Godwin tested his knee on the Bucs’ first offensive play of the season, catching a screen from Brady and going 24 yards to take his first contact and welcome himself back to the physicality of the NFL. All week, the plan had been to call that on the second play, but a false start on the opening snap moved it up.
“The best feeling I had all year was the first play in Dallas,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said last week. “That’s why that play was called, to see him in that game. I wanted to get it out of the way, and it went for 20 just to show who he is as a player. I’ll remember that the rest of my life, really. Going into Dallas, him being in the starting lineup, that was unreal. That goes to show you the work that he puts in. I wanted to reward him for that.”
In his recovery, Godwin has again become a consistent element in the Bucs’ offense, catching at least five passes in 12 straight games. That’s the longest such active streak in the NFL — the Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb is closest, at nine games — and the second-longest in Bucs history, behind a 15-game streak by Keyshawn Johnson in 2000-01.
Godwin’s sure handedness and elusiveness have made him a frequent target for Brady — in the past six games, he has 47 catches, which ties for the second-most in the NFL, trailing only the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson (54). The next-closest teammate in that span is running back Leonard Fournette with 26, and Godwin has twice as many catches in the past six games as the closest receiver, Mike Evans, who has 23. He’s in good position to reset his career high of 98 catches, set last season before his injury, and should become just the second Bucs player ever to catch 100 passes in a season, along with Johnson’s 106 in 2001.
Godwin now has three of the top seven seasons in Bucs history for receptions, and he’s done it on fewer opportunities than most. Godwin’s catch percentage — the fraction of targeted passes he has turned into receptions — is over 70% in all three of his best seasons, and no other player in the top 15 seasons in Bucs history has 70% in any of his seasons.
“I try not to focus too much on stats,” Godwin said this week. “I really try to look at everything as my impact on the team, and I try to look at the game as a whole and see if I made a positive impact or not. If I didn’t, how can I be better? But I think just being as consistent as I can is something I can try to hang my hat on. I want to be a reliable guy for my team, so that whenever the ball is thrown my way, they expect that the plays are going to be made.”
Can the Bucs offense find its old self in the last two weeks of the regular season and potentially in any playoff run? After averaging more than 30 points a game the past two years, Tampa Bay has averaged a pedestrian 17.7 this year, scoring more than 23 points just once all season, in a 41-31 loss to the Chiefs no less. Facing a strong Panthers run game this week, the Bucs might need more scoring to outpace a team that beat them 21-3 in Charlotte in Week 7, but Godwin thinks the offense is ready to exceed expectations Sunday.
“I really feel like it could be any moment it clicks for us, and whatever that missing piece is, I think it’s right there,” he said. “It’s not just going to happen, right? We’ve got to make it happen, we’ve got to go out there and work together.”
A steady diet of quick screens and shorter passes has dropped Godwin’s per-catch average to 9.5 yards, a career low, but he’s still on course to top 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in four years. And as the Bucs seek to step up and finish their season with momentum, Godwin will be a central part of that drive.
“This guy is like our bloodline,” Leftwich said. “He does a lot for us, and we love his approach on football, too.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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