METAIRIE, La. – It all started with a helmet bump.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston almost cringes when he thinks about it.
If he had restrained his temper, things might have turned out very differently. Perhaps Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore would have walked away and never thought of each other as twice-a-year competitors again.
But Winston couldn’t help it on November 5, 2017.
Winston, then with the Buccaneers, had just injured his shoulder in the third quarter of a possible loss to the Saints. He was frustrated, irritated and genuinely didn’t want to deal with Lattimore, then a rookie cornerback for the Saints, who ran near the Bucs touchline.
So Winston poked Lattimore in the helmet and told him to get out. Lattimore shoved Winston, Evans rushed in to defend his quarterback, blanking Lattimore and sending him down. Other players joined the fight and although Evans wasn’t kicked out that day, he was eventually suspended for one game.
One of the most heated player rivalries in the NFL was born.
“I wasn’t in a good position because I’d just been taken out of the game,” Winston recalled. “There was a bench press that I wasn’t comfortable with. I just remember Marshon being on our sidelines and being competitive. And Mike came in and hit him. I don’t necessarily think that was fair, but Mike was my teammate, my receiver so I have to understand the risks [it] had what that could have been for Marshon. … Mike was a contender, he said, ‘That was my quarterback.’ And so he was over there.”
When asked if Winston felt responsible for starting the rift, Evans simply said, “It is what it is,” and said he has a close relationship with Winston.
The rivalry doesn’t seem to be waning five years later, and it might actually get more intense. The two players have met 11 times, including playoffs, and a twelfth meeting is imminent on Monday if Lattimore can return after an abdominal injury that sidelined him since he was eliminated from the Oct. 9 game against the Seattle Seahawks. Lattimore is officially listed as a questionable on the injury report going into the game day.
“We’re two competitors,” Evans said. “Two competitors, two of the best in the business, and we’re moving on. We’re getting physical and it’s a good matchup.”
Said Winston, “You’re the best at your craft, right? That’s been the case for the last five years and that’s for everyone to see on the site. Do I think it’s personal? Yes. I think it’s personal. … I hate that I got involved in the rivalry when I was at Tampa. I apologize to Marshon every day. No really. But at the end of the day, Marshon is my teammate and I love Mike. So that among themselves. “
At their first meeting of the season on Sept. 18, Evans and Bucs running back Leonard Fournette initiated a brawl on the bench after Evans defended Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who appeared to have spoken to Lattimore. Both Lattimore and Evans were knocked out of the game and Evans received another suspension.
Brady called Evans’ suspension “ridiculous” on his Let’s Go! podcast the day after the Bucs’ 20-10 win over the Saints. He said it meant the world to him that Evans wanted to defend him and didn’t think he deserved a suspension.
“I think it’s an emotional game and I think we’re playing against a very tough team,” Brady said on Friday. “These guys have been together for a long time. They play well together.
“I think Mike obviously doesn’t want to be kicked out of a game. I’m sure Marshon doesn’t want to be kicked out of the game. Everyone wants to keep up and play hard, but you’re playing by the letter of the law. When it goes beyond that, unfortunately things happen, but you learn from it and try to move on.
Winston said he did not speak to Evans about the fight after that game and limited his conversations with him to things outside of football.
There was a time Evans said he intended to apologize to Lattimore for the first incident, a move he describes as “childish” and for which he has taken responsibility.
But over the years, the time to make amends has passed.
“This is real beef,” said Cameron Jordan, the Saints defensive end. “I spoke to Mike about it and it went from ‘ah, it’s nothing’ to ‘they don’t like each other.’ It is what it is. It’s a very obvious situation.”
Jordan doesn’t know why the emotions never let up.
“It definitely has to be something because it just keeps happening, doesn’t it?” Jordan said.
The feud is so well known at this point that as a freshman, Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs was warned to keep an eye on Evans when he faced Lattimore.
“[Former Bucs tight end] Ryan Griffin told me whenever we play these guys to keep an eye on Mike,” he said after they first met this season.
Blue Oak BBQ, a local New Orleans restaurant, posted a sign outside its restaurant banning Evans for life following their fight this season.
“This is a No Mike Evans establishment,” read the sign below a picture of Evans.
There have been other modern feuds between cornerbacks and opposing wide receivers. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman called out San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. Odell Beckham Jr. (then with the New York Giants) and Josh Norman (then with the Carolina Panthers) were fined and suspended for their fights. Wide receiver AJ Green and cornerback Jalen Ramsey got into a one-off fight when Green was with the Cincinnati Bengals and Ramsey was with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But none of the recent matchups have entertained year after year like Evans and Lattimore.
“It’s not about all the extracurricular things. Because these things are personal. Everyone has their own opinion on this,” Winston said. “But the matchup between the two is literally best against best and we get to see it two, sometimes three times here.”
There was a time when Lattimore had the upper hand in the matchup, and he happily pointed out in a Nov. 9, 2020 tweet that he kept Evans three straight games to no catch.
“Better luck next year,” Lattimore wrote.
Good luck next year https://t.co/Dox6xiDwpN
— Shon (@shonrp2) November 9, 2020
But both players have struggled to get on track after going their separate ways.
Frustration is brewing for Evans and the Bucs’ offense, who are averaging just 17.55 offensive points per game — 26th in the league — after averaging 30.36 offensive points per game in 12 games last season. Evans has not scored a touchdown since his performance of two touchdowns in the Bucs’ Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and he has only three all season compared to the 10 he had in Week 12 of last season had, and the 11 he had through week 12 in 2020.
In fact, the three touchdowns Evans has is the second-lowest total in 12 games he’s had since his rookie season in 2014.
With Lattimore’s injury woes, he will end the season with the fewest games of his six-year career as the Saints struggle to end the season with a winning record — but so does the NFC South as a whole.
Evans said he knew he had to keep his cool if Lattimore made it back onto the field Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), especially with two suspensions under his belt.
When asked how he’s going to keep himself in check to avoid an ejection, Evans said: “I just play my game. I just can’t shove anyone you know out of thin air. I just have to like, keep my emotions in check and just play hard like I always do.”
Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said the team spoke to Evans about staying cool after the early-season struggle, but he’s not worried about a repeat issue.
“The most important thing for Mike is that Mike needs to understand how important he is to us and what he means to us,” Leftwich said. “Whoever they were going to lose on defense and we’re losing Mike – that’s an advantage for them I see. I think he’s so important for us as an offensive player. He understands that. There was a lot of communication after that first game about how important he is to us.”
Your teammates will be ready just in case.
“It’s a Shon [vs.] Mike Evans situation,” Jordan said. “I’ve got people with 300 pounds on them to worry about. When it comes down to it, we tackle it. We will definitely ride for our guy. I think Marshon proved he’s not afraid of anything. He doesn’t back down for anyone. And it takes two or three guys to push him in the back to get him under control I think.
“This is completely right. That’s part of the game. You shouldn’t like everyone you compete against.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35174514/jameis-winston-talks-lattimore-evans-rivalry-saints-bucs Jameis Winston talks being on both sides of Marshon Lattimore-Mike Evans rivalry