The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a relatively fortunate club in 2020 when it came to injuries, which is not an uncommon trait for Super Bowl champions. Only one of the 22 players who started the regular season opener was unavailable to play by the time the Super Bowl rolled around, as right guard Alex Cappa broke an ankle in the Wild Card round. Only two players on the opening-day 53-man roster missed 10 or more games due to injury, and one of those – Vita Vea – actually returned for the final two games of the playoffs.
That is, of course, little comfort to the other player on that list, tight end O.J. Howard, though the Super Bowl ring he is sure to get should provide some. Howard played the first four games of the season before suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon late in the fourth contest, a comeback 38-31 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. In the third quarter of that game, Howard had pulled the Bucs within three points with a 28-yard touchdown catch, part of a rally from 17 points down.
Howard's three catches for 50 yards in that game was part of a very promising first month for the fourth-year tight end. Rather than seeing his production diminished by the arrival of veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski, Howard had thrived in two-TE sets. His 146 receiving yards through the first quarter of the season were the most by any tight end on the team and third among all players behind Mike Evans and Scotty Miller. He had scored twice in those four games, joining Evans as the only Bucs with multiple touchdown catches in that span.
The Bucs did not technically lose a starter when Howard was hurt, as he hadn't opened any of the first four games. But Vea, the starting nose tackle, went down the next week to an ankle fracture and was widely expected to miss the rest of the season. When the Bucs made a run in the playoffs, it gave Vea just enough time to make his surprise return. The recovery time for Howard's injury was always known to be longer, so simply due to bad luck he was unable to contribute to the Bucs' title run over the last 16 games.