TAMPA — Talent alone is not enough. After all, every quarterback and wide receiver in the NFL has some degree of talent, yet few combine to consistently play at a truly dynamic level.
Simply getting on the same page won’t do it either. It is a prerequisite to success, of course, but a quarterback and a receiver can be on the same page and still fail to become a force.
In order to become a truly prolific tandem, a quarterback and a receiver also have to develop a language all their own, a system of communication that allows them to convey messages without speaking.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans appear to have developed just such a language.
On a third-and-3 play in the third quarter of their game against the 49ers last Sunday, Evans lined up in the slot to Winston’s right and ran a quick slant off the snap into the middle of the field.
As he entered the end zone, two defenders immediately converged on Evans, one from his left and one from his right, leaving him bracketed while Winston scrambled in search of an open target.
It was at that moment, though, that Evans coyly brought his right hand to his chest and pointed upward, an indication to Winston to throw him a jump ball toward the back of the end zone.
Winston obliged, and after Evans quickly broke back and away from his two defenders, he easily jumped up and secured his second touchdown pass of the day in what proved to be a 34-17 Buccaneers victory.
Afterward, fellow wideout Russell Shepard, who had a career day with five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, could only marvel at what he believes the Winston-Evans tandem is growing into.
“You’re seeing the best quarterback-receiver (tandem) probably in franchise history developing, putting something special together,’’ Shepard said. “They’re on their way.’’
It’s not like they have far to go. The most prolific passing-receiving combo in Buccaneers history is quarterback Josh Freeman and receiver Mike Williams, who hooked up for 24 touchdown passes across 51 games between 2010 and 2013.
With nine touchdown passes across 21 career games already, the 22-year-old Winston and 23-year-old Evans are right on pace to match that level of proficiency. There’s reason to believe, though, they could shoot for something much higher.
At least as it pertains to touchdowns, Winston and Evans are already the most prolific passing-receiving duo in the league, tied with quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Michael Crabtree of the Raiders with six combined touchdowns.
That should make for an interesting battle come Sunday, when the Buccaneers face the Raiders at Raymond James Stadium, where Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter may be growing a bit concerned that his team has begun to lean too much on a good thing.
“Sometimes Jameis can try to go to Mike too much when he has multiple reads,’’ Koetter said. “That happened a couple times (against the 49ers and) we got caught on that.’’
One of the times the Buccaneers got caught was on that third-and-3 play in the third quarter. Winston was clearly bent on getting the ball to Evans but he says he had good reason for sticking with his favorite target.
“Mike’s just getting open,’’ Winston said. “And we’ve put in a lot of work on that and our hard work is paying off. You can see it coming. Mike’s starting to see and he’s been seeing and so I just have to get him the ball.’’
Including on that third-and-3 play that all but sealed the Buccaneers third victory in six games this year, Winston often gets the ball to Winston by employing a simple principle taught to him by Buccaneers quarterback coach Mike Bajakian.
“It’s a basic thing,’’ Winston said. “(Bajakian) always tells me, ‘Throw a tall guy a tall ball.’ And, you know, Mike has a basketball background. So anytime we have a chance to throw that alley-oop up there, we’re going to take advantage of it.’’
There’s no question Evans is taking good advantage of his tight relationship with Winston. After both devoted his offseason to building a tighter bond — on and off the field — Evans has continued to emerge as one of the league’s best wideouts.
He went into Week 8 of the NFL season on Tuesday tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns with six while also ranking third in the league in receptions per game (6.7) and fifth in the league in receiving yards per game (90.8).
Evans is the only player in the league who ranks in the top five in all those categories, and he’s been big in the clutch, too, converting all of the nine receptions he’s made on third down this year into first downs.
“That’s the money down, and Jameis and I get a lot of reps in practice at that,’’ Evans said. “When it’s third down, I want to win no matter what and no matter what the coverage is. Jameis trusts me and he’s comfortable with me.’’
As comfortable it seems as any Buccaneers quarterback has ever been with a receiver.
“They’re fun to watch right now,’’ Buccaneers four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “And I’m telling you, they could be one of the great ones, one of those great one-two punches you see in this league because when those two are connecting, they’re hard to stop.’’