There was a time, Sammy Watkins admits, that this all would have played out a lot differently.
Watkins, the Los Angeles Rams’ No. 1 receiver, was targeted only twice in Sunday’s 35-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, with neither coming within the game’s first 50 minutes. And he was totally fine with it, which is, well, unusual.
“Two years ago, it would’ve probably been different,” Watkins said. “I would’ve probably gone to the media and been saying whatever, trying to get the coach’s attention. That’s how I used to do it back then. Like, ‘I need more targets.’ Then that comes to the coach, and me and him have to talk.”
Watkins did it quite famously while with the Bills in October 2015, when he said the team was making him “look bad,” then told The Buffalo News, “I need 10 targets.” Now in his fourth NFL season, Watkins recalled that moment Thursday, four days after making only one catch in his fourth game with his new team. He laughed about how his method actually seemed to work — Watkins averaged more than eight targets per game for the remainder of Buffalo’s 2015 season — but lamented how it played out in the locker room.
“It definitely helped me and my coach learn each other,” Watkins said. “At the same time, I feel like it affected my teammates because they looked at it as selfish.”
A foot injury, which forced Watkins to miss half of the 2016 season, triggered a change in perspective.
“I felt like I was consumed, and I was angry,” Watkins said. “It was affecting my relationships with the coaches and with the players. I wanted to be great so bad, but I was also selfish, too. Because there were some games that we won and I didn’t get the ball, and I was upset. I looked at both sides of it, like, yeah, it is a point where you want to be great, but you also have to understand what we have on this team.”
Acquired in exchange for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick near the middle of August, Watkins joined the Rams as their primary deep threat. But as time went on, he began to understand that his targets would become infrequent because the Rams wanted to spread the ball around and because they actually had the personnel to do it. That certainly has been the case so far. Watkins’ targets through the first four weeks: 5, 2, 7, 2.
One hundred and forty NFL receivers have been targeted more frequently this season.
“I have to just be honest with myself: There’s a lot of guys who are really good in this wide-receiver room,” Watkins said. “Not just wide receivers, but you have the tight ends, you have a running back who needs his touches, and there’s a lot of guys who can do just about the same that I can do. When you have as much potential in one room, I have to be honest and say I’m not going to get 20 targets like an Odell Beckham or a Julio Jones or these other guys. But I’ll take winning games over making myself feel good.”
Rams running back Todd Gurley has been absorbing an inordinate amount of the touches, but the receivers and tight ends basically have alternated in making an impact. In Week 1, the targets were pretty evenly distributed, with Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp combining for 16. In Week 2, Kupp drew a team-leading six targets. In Week 3, Watkins and Woods combined for 12 receptions on 14 targets for 214 yards. In Week 4, it was Kupp, Woods and second-year tight end Tyler Higbee drawing a combined 19 targets.
“When you do have the variety of skill players that we have, you don’t want to just force-feed a guy,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I think that enables us to spread the field, use everybody.”
Watkins, a potential free agent at season’s end, went from making six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers to making one catch for 17 yards against the Cowboys: a big one, near his shoestrings, to put the Rams in field-goal range with five minutes left. Watkins spent that entire game repeating one phrase to himself: “Stay in it.”
Remaining engaged despite minimal action, Watkins said, “is the biggest challenge for any wide receiver that’s used to having 20-target or 15-target games.”
“But I know those plays are coming my way, and I’ve got to make those plays,” Watkins said. “Neither of us is going to get 15 targets a game. We have too many great guys that need their touches. So for me, it’s really just focus on blocking, focus on getting open, focus on showing Coach that I can play without the ball, that I’m not selfish.”