With just under five minutes left to go and the score tipped heavily in the Dallas Cowboys' favor, 49-7, the odds of the Washington Football Team coming back were slim to say the least.
Apparently, no one said that to John Bates.
Bates, lined up in the slot, got a step on Keanu Neal and caught Taylor Heinicke’s pass at the 45-yard line before turning up field. He slipped by three Cowboys defenders, shrugged off Leighton Vander Esch and fought off Neal again before stepping out of bounds for a 32-yard gain. It was a rare spark for an offense that couldn't get any traction in the 56-14 defeat.
It's not the type of play many expected Bates, mostly known as a blocker at Boise State, to make when Washington took him up as a fourth-round pick, but the rookie has had similar moments throughout the season. It's come to the point where Washington is expecting more out of him than just clearing running lanes.
"John's been outstanding," said offensive coordinator Scott Turner. "He's really exceeded our expectations."
In a tight end room that has experienced one crippling setback after the other -- Logan Thomas has been on Injured Reserve twice, while Ricky Seals-Jones has missed time as well -- Bates has managed to become a steady presence for Washington's quarterbacks. Blocking is still one of his best traits, but the way he has emerged as an option in the passing game shows that's only part of what he can do.
Bates has 16 receptions for 209 yards, and if you're struggling to think of a time where he's dropped the ball, that's because it hasn't happen often. He's only had three since he was first targeted against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6.
Turner saw that in practice, but it's always difficult to judge how a rookie will handle things in a game scenario. So far, Bates is holding up.
"He's really sure handed, he catches everything," Turner said. "He doesn't have the top end speed, but the quickness and the ability to separate. Then just being that big target that the quarterback likes to throw the ball to. He just keeps getting better and better."
Boise State tight ends coach Kent Riddle never had any doubts about Bates' ability to catch the ball, but the Broncos needed him as an extra blocker most of the time, so he didn't get the chance to show off that skill often. He's certainly getting that opportunity now. He's already caught more passes and accounted for more yards than he did in his first two years at Boise State combined.
"He'll make big plays in crowds," Riddle said. "It's just the understanding of, 'Hey, man, if it's close to you, go get it. It's your ball.'"
Bates didn't have to fight for the ball on his play in the third quarter, but he did fight through tackles to try and get Washington in scoring position. That alone was enough to impress Turner.
"He wasn't gonna give in and he was playing his butt off the whole game," Turner said. "I think you're gonna see him keep getting better. He's gonna develop more too, just physically."
With two games left, Washington's coaching staff wants to take a longer look at its younger players as they finish out their rookie seasons. Bates is one of them, but it sounds like he's already made an impression.
"He's gonna get stronger with the more time he has with our strength staff and as he grows older," Turner said. "I think he's got a chance to be a really good player going forward."