TAMPA, Fla. -- From the moment he signed a four-year, $54 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers in March, linebacker Kwon Alexander had been looking forward to his return to Tampa Bay to face his former team.
Alexander made that return on Sunday as the Niners opened their season against the Buccaneers. It didn't last long.
In fact, Alexander's return to Florida lasted less than a quarter- albeit an eventful one - after he was ejected for lowering his head to initiate contact on a hit against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston.
With 1:02 left in the opening quarter, Winston scrambled for a first down on third-and-3 from the 50. As Winston slid after picking up the first down, Alexander dropped his head and contacted Winston's helmet.
Alexander received a 15-yard penalty and an ejection for the hit, bringing his day to an end. After San Francisco's 31-17 win, Alexander said he meant no harm to Winston.
"It wasn't intentional," Alexander said. "I was just playing hard. I just saw the pump fake at first. Once you pump fake the ball, you can either throw it or you can fake (it and) you're running it. So, it was kind of like I'm in a tough situation so, like me, I just play hard and finish everything I do. It just happened like that."
A few Bucs, including receiver Mike Evans and left guard Ali Marpet took umbrage with Alexander's hit, shoving and yelling at Alexander after the play. Alexander pushed back but was quickly separated and didn't offer much protest to the ejection.
"We were surprised it was Kwon, but stuff happens fast out there," Evans said. "I know he didn't try to intentionally hurt Jameis. They're good friends. We all love Kwon and we miss him. We wish him nothing but the best with the 49ers. I hope he's good for the next game."
Winston expressed a similar sentiment.
"I got down late, I gave myself up and he was just playing football," Winston said. "It's tough for defenders to get out of the way of that. Fortunately, we try to protect the quarterback in this league and we did that."
After suffering a torn ACL in October of last year, Alexander was not only making his return to Tampa but to meaningful NFL games. He had been active in his Niners debut, making three tackles and helping in coverage, though he also dropped an interception before his ejection. Rookie Dre Greenlaw replaced Alexander with the starting defense.
"I thought everything was going smooth," Alexander said. "I felt like I was having a good game instead of the missed pick that I had. Other than that, I've got to just keep getting better and keep working."
After the game, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said he understood the penalty but expressed some concern about the rules allowing for ejection on such a bang-bang play.
"That's what's hard about the rules," Shanahan said. "I don't know how much Jameis Winston weighs but he's a very big guy and you've got him running and right at the sticks and you don't know whether they're going to slide or lower their shoulder and run someone over like he does left and right. So, Kwon bought it, which you kind of have to do. You want them to do that without leading with their head and sometimes, it's harder.
"You want to challenge them hard on that. We'll review the tape and slow it down and figure out how to coach him on that. So, I'm sure he did deserve the penalty, it's just very tough when you only have 46 guys up on game day and you lose a guy in the first quarter. It's not like college where you've got 100 guys on the field."
Earlier in the week, Alexander downplayed his return to Tampa Bay but Shanahan said he expected it to mean something extra to his new linebacker. Shanahan reinforced that belief Sunday by awarding Alexander a game ball despite his brief participation in the game.
"It was nice to give Kwon the ball even though he only played a quarter with us," Shanahan said. "I know it's a big deal for him coming home to Tampa. He did a lot of good things here and played a lot of good ball in this stadium. I know it was a big deal for him and I know it was hard on him to only play the first quarter, but I think guys were pumped up for him."
While Alexander appreciated the token from Shanahan, he was more pleased that his teammates picked up the slack in his absence to get a victory.
"It meant a lot," Alexander said. "They had my back. They told me they were going to have my back and they went out there and did their job. They did what they said."