Home Sports ‘He wants to resurrect his career’: Has Baker Mayfield found a forever home with the Bucs?

‘He wants to resurrect his career’: Has Baker Mayfield found a forever home with the Bucs?

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‘He wants to resurrect his career’: Has Baker Mayfield found a forever home with the Bucs?

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NEW ORLEANS — Baker Mayfield stood apart from his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates on the Caesars Superdome turf, palms covering the ear holes of his helmet, awaiting the playcall that might provide a much-needed signature moment.

Just about everything about the situation said call a safe play, get the kicker ready: Third-and-goal from the Saints’ 5-yard-line, 3:44 left, the Buccaneers up 17-9, star receiver Mike Evans injured, a journeyman quarterback — on his fourth NFL team in 16 months — at the controls.

But a few plays earlier, Bucs coach Todd Bowles had directed offensive coordinator Dave Canales to be aggressive. So Canales drew up a play Mayfield liked from a few weeks ago, a shotgun look allowing him to survey the field and enter a scramble drill if initial reads weren’t there. The play was designed to beat man coverage, with the ability to check into a different play if the coverage changed.

Mayfield stuck with the play, but once he dropped back there were no obvious reads. The quarterback looked left, right, left, bouncing around, hoping his eyes would locate an open white jersey. “Find someone,” Canales told himself.

Mayfield rolled to his right and after 7.68 seconds — an eternity against NFL pass-rushers — delivered a dime to a leaping Deven Thompkins. Touchdown, game sealed.

Turns out the Bucs almost welcomed the chaos of the play, and the presence of a quarterback who has seen his share of it.

“One thing about Baker, he has great vision and fast eyes, so getting guys moving is a good thing,” Canales said. “Bake will find someone.”

One of the surprises of the early 2023 NFL season, Mayfield — the former No. 1 pick — looks intent on delivering on some of the promise that followed him into the league as the Cleveland Browns‘ top draft pick in 2018. He enters a Week 6 meeting against the Lions with a 70.2 QBR that ranks sixth in the NFL. The team that took a chance on him — including a head coach and general manager who were also facing high stakes — might just be riding their canny decision to an unlikely NFC South title and post-Tom Brady relevance.

Mayfield’s five-year career, preceding his 3-1 start to this season, contained multitudes. On-the-brink brilliance followed by stardom, insurance commercials, a historic playoff win, injuries, uneven play, team dysfunction, a trade, a release, a rejuvenating month in Southern California and an eventual one-year deal of modest stature ($4 million and up to $8.5 million with incentives) with a Buccaneers team that would not promise him a starting job.

He escaped the fray humbled yet hungry, those close to him said. And his mini-renaissance in Tampa sits neatly alongside the objectives of a talented team still salty about the national perception it would struggle because Brady retired — and because Mayfield was Brady’s replacement.

“He has an eternal chip on his shoulder,” general manager Jason Licht said. “Now he wants to resurrect his career. Everybody was counting him out and saying he sucks.”


BRADY’S RETIREMENT ON Feb. 1 confirmed a reality for which Bowles and Licht had already begun planning, according to multiple team sources: the Buccaneers would start a new era at quarterback.

The team liked Kyle Trask, the University of Florida product it had used a late-second-round draft choice on in 2021, but Trask was unproven and identifying competition was necessary. Picking 19th in the 2023 draft, Licht knew top rookie options Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson would be off the board.

That left free agency as the most prudent path. Still addressing salary cap issues from Brady’s contract and $35 million cap hit, Tampa Bay was not in position to pay top dollar for Jimmy Garoppolo or Derek Carr, the top two free agent quarterbacks. The Bucs discussed backup Drew Lock, whom Canales coached in Seattle, before zeroing in on Mayfield, according to Licht. Licht saw a high ceiling based on Mayfield’s best days, including a 2020 season when he threw 26 TDs to eight interceptions in leading the Browns to their first playoff win in 26 years.

Bowles had struck a good relationship with Mayfield before the 2018 draft, when he was still coaching the Jets, and says he always liked Mayfield’s game and what he called his “moxie.”

“I knew what I was getting,” said Bowles, who believed Mayfield was an ideal fit for Tampa’s new offensive scheme, with former coordinator Byron Leftwich fired in January. “Sometimes the hottest name isn’t the best name.”

That Mayfield would be a coveted starting quarterback candidate for any NFL team might have seemed unrealistic months before. It was early December when the Carolina Panthers unceremoniously cut Mayfield after a miserable six-game stretch produced a 1-5 record, a career-low 57.8 completion percentage and six touchdown passes versus six interceptions. Mayfield’s QBR of 18.2 at the time of his release ranked 520th out of 521 qualified QB seasons since the statistic was first tracked in 2006. It was reasonable to wonder whether the former No. 1 pick’s days in the league had come to an end.

But a funny thing happened on the way to career oblivion. The Los Angeles Rams, in the midst of a lost season characterized by spiraling injury issues among their quarterbacks, claimed Mayfield on waivers on Dec. 6 — the only team to submit a waiver claim. Two days later, Mayfield orchestrated one of the unlikeliest victories of the year given the circumstances, leading the Rams to a 17-16 win over the Las Vegas Raiders despite little familiarity with either his teammates or the playbook. Later that month, in a Christmas night pummeling of the Denver Broncos, Mayfield had one of the finest games of his career, completing 24 of 28 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. His stint in Sean McVay’s offense had proven to Mayfield — and to the rest of the league — that he could still play.

“I know I’m a starting quarterback,” Mayfield said as he sat at his locker after the Rams’ season finale. “I’m confident in that. And we’ll just see what happens.”

Roughly two months later, finding the right situation was paramount for Mayfield. Tampa made contact, but the Ravens also expressed interest in Mayfield as a Lamar Jackson contingency amid Baltimore’s negotiations with the former MVP. But Mayfield and his agent, Tom Mills, figured Jackson would eventually sign with the Ravens, turning Mayfield into the clear backup. He wanted the chance to start, preferably with a team that could win.

Though the retirement of the most decorated quarterback in NFL history would destabilize any franchise to some extent, Licht and Bowles did not believe they were selling Mayfield on a team in rebuilding mode. Tampa had at least one high-level player at most positions, and many of the pieces that lured Brady to Tampa three years ago were still in place. Mayfield’s desire to play for the Bucs was obvious early in free agency.

“He saw the situation here, some stability, coaching with Todd, having players here and a good roster, and we’re looking for a QB — he thought it was a great fit,” Licht said.

Mayfield signed a team-friendly one-year deal with the club. But big challenges lay ahead.


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1:20

Pat McAfee applauds Baker Mayfield’s start in Tampa Bay

“The Pat McAfee Show” talks about Baker Mayfield winning over the Bucs locker room during Tampa Bay’s 3-1 start.

ON AN OPPRESSIVELY hot and humid Florida day early in training camp, the sound of AC/DC shook the walls within an air conditioned conference room at the team’s One Buc Place headquarters. That was the setting where Licht and his staff could be found reviewing the day’s work of the quarterbacks, accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack. Members of the staff take turns playing DJ, but when it’s Licht’s day, everyone knows what’s playing. Mayfield and Trask had been put through three drills at a brisk, no-huddle pace, and Licht & Co. intently watched each snap amid the first true quarterback battle of the GM’s 10-year tenure in Tampa.

On this day, Trask had the upper hand — and not for the first time. Trask was showing impressive command, while Mayfield’s play was characterized by errant throws. Some in the building wondered whether Mayfield was starting to press, the self-applied pressure of his last meaningful chance to be an NFL starter palpable.

Quarterbacks coach Thad Lewis, blunt but lighthearted in his messaging, made his point in the quarterback room later that day.

“Hey, I don’t know who that guy is, but leave him home tomorrow,” Lewis told Mayfield with a smile. Mayfield laughed, gave a joking “whatever,” then conceded, “I know.”

Mayfield wasn’t playing poorly as a whole and was still the leader in this competition — as he had been since OTAs in the spring — but he had to respond with his best. Trask was gaining ground.

Canales felt déjà vu. While serving as the quarterbacks coach in Seattle last preseason, Canales had a front-row seat to the battle between Lock and Geno Smith. Smith won that job with consistency and decision-making rather than with flash, points of emphasis Canales worked to get across to Mayfield. No need to wear a cape and don’t get bored with completions, Canales reminded him.

Canales recalls Mayfield “looking sideways” at Trask’s improvements, intuiting the growing threat.

It was then that Mayfield settled in. He got everyone’s attention by uncorking a 67-yard bomb to Mike Evans on a post route at an indoor practice. Canales called it a “whoa” moment. Bowles recalled telling himself, “Yeah, I see that” after Mayfield rattled off four or five impressive completions in a row. He was taking ownership of the job.

And he was excellent in preseason game action, hitting 14 of 15 passes for 105 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 135.4 passer rating.

In the days leading up to Bowles announcing Mayfield as the starter on Aug. 22, coaches huddled and debated the merits of the two players, according to Bowles. Everyone agreed Trask “got a whole lot better,” but Mayfield’s total package — command of the offense, leadership and accuracy — prevailed, Bowles said.

The other thing Mayfield possessed, or had regained, was the signature swagger that had been on public display going all the way back to his time as a freshman walk-on at Texas Tech.

“If I can’t beat this guy out, then I don’t deserve the job, or more power to him,” one source close to Mayfield recalled of the quarterback’s thinking.

The confidence had returned, fueled by his battle with Trask. It was the one part of Mayfield’s makeup the Bucs had hoped to see.

“He said, ‘Oh yeah, no problem, we can call it a competition all you want,'” Licht recalls. “You could tell, in the back of his head, he was thinking he was winning this thing.”


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1:38

Baker Mayfield on McAfee: ‘Still confused’ about Browns exit

Baker Mayfield joins “The Pat McAfee Show” to discuss his departure from the Cleveland Browns and joining the Los Angeles Rams.

SHORTLY AFTER MAYFIELD arrived to sign his contract in March, Canales welcomed his quarterback into his office.

Tell me your story, Canales requested.

Canales had watched Mayfield from afar and loved his game coming out of college at Oklahoma, but he sensed Mayfield’s situation in Cleveland from 2018 to 2021 was something of a roller coaster, and he noticed a frustrated quarterback in his dealings with the media.

“He’s a guy who’s really self-aware,” Canales said. “He started mapping out the changing of the playcallers, where he was at in the middle of it, trying to figure out who he was going to be as a pro quarterback.”

Mayfield’s collection of playbooks could fill a personal library. Bowles is Mayfield’s eighth NFL head coach and Canales his eighth offensive coordinator.

Mayfield’s promise shined in 2020, when he and head coach Kevin Stefanski won the Browns’ first playoff game since 1994. But his play cratered in 2021, due in part to a major shoulder injury that required surgery. The Browns were no longer willing to bank on that early promise, trading for Deshaun Watson before sending Mayfield to Carolina on July 6. Mayfield acknowledged publicly that he was confused by Cleveland’s rejection.

Mayfield found little chemistry with the Panthers and played poorly, though multiple people with that staff said they believe his late start learning the system — the Browns, Panthers and Mayfield’s camp quibbled over the contract, and he didn’t sign until July 2022 — was a factor. The whole thing was messy. Mayfield was surprised at how quickly it unraveled, and the Panthers that he didn’t play better.

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1:10

Baker Mayfield on McAfee: Joining Bucs was an easy decision

Baker Mayfield joins Pat McAfee to discuss his thought process in signing with the Buccaneers.

Mayfield owned some of his poor play in his meeting with Canales, who sympathized with Mayfield’s lack of stability since entering the league.

Both men had something to prove, after all. Canales spent 13 years on Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s staff, never graduating beyond passing-game coordinator. With a playcaller opening in 2021, Carroll bypassed his trusted assistant in favor of outside help, former Rams assistant Shane Waldron. Canales was frustrated but decided to immerse himself in Waldron’s thinking and the Rams-based scheme.

“He’s a competitor, he’s been like that his whole life, it hasn’t changed. He has a lot to prove.”

Todd Bowles on Mayfield

After helping lead Smith to a Pro Bowl in 2022, the Bucs called. Canales has shared this experience with Mayfield, who now has a safe space to make mistakes. Canales wants his quarterbacks to be “vulnerable with their play,” play freely and be willing to fail in practice settings. Mayfield has submitted to the plan.

“Baker was in a place of, ‘I know who I am, what my best stuff is, and I want to see what I can do in your offense,'” Canales said. “Like, ‘I’m just going to grind, have a good time and put it in good hands.'”

That meant Mayfield would be protected, sometimes from himself. While Mayfield has freedom in the offense, the Bucs want to win with a steady running game while limiting turnovers, taking big-play shots when available. Tampa ranks 10th in rushing attempts per game (29.3) despite ranking 25th in rushing yards (87). The Bucs won’t often ask Mayfield to navigate a spread-it-out offense that throws 40-45 times in a game (Mayfield has averaged 31.25 attempts per outing). And, after five-plus seasons of film on him, that’s probably the appropriate approach.

But all his best qualities are coming to life at once, which could expand the possibilities.

“He’s tough, he’s gritty, [and] he’s a very smart football player,” Bowles said. “He’s a competitor, he’s been like that his whole life, it hasn’t changed. He has a lot to prove, he’s having fun out there, he understands the offense, he’s using every piece of [skill-position talent] that we give him, and he’s having a good time.”


WHILE NOT LOOKING too far into the future, Mayfield has expressed the type of contentment in Tampa that he did not experience consistently with the Browns or the Panthers.

“What they tell you is what you’re getting. There’s no behind the scenes drama — it’s all about winning here,” Mayfield told reporters last month. “‘How can we put our guys in the best position to win?’ It’s rare, unfortunately, in the NFL to have an organization like that — that’s why I’m so happy to be here.”

Mayfield has indicated he’s enjoying flying under the radar in Tampa, despite giving fantastic, made-for-TV one-liners at the news conference podium. He turned down participating in the Netflix “Quarterback” series, saying he preferred to remain locked in on football and keep the cameras away.

The anonymity Mayfield seeks is reflected in his desire to be considered an extension of the offensive line, a bond that has tightened through his first seven months on the job.

Left tackle Tristan Wirfs said Mayfield texted offensive linemen early in the offseason to establish a relationship, and since then he has been an unofficial part of the crew, fast friends who crush wings and buckets of Coors Light at Hattricks Sports Bar in Tampa. Mayfield also took the line to the Bahamas after final roster cuts, and he has gone golfing with defensive linemen Vita Vea, Greg Gaines and Patrick O’Connor and cornerback Jamel Dean.

“He’s a dog,” Wirfs said. “He loves football, he loves keeping plays alive. He’s going to fight … to keep plays alive. We love the energy he brings.”

Mayfield’s leadership has been necessary to galvanize a team that was picked near the bottom of the league by many during the preseason. Licht was hopeful Mayfield would embrace and be accepted in that role, but he also needed to see the Mayfield experience firsthand to confirm it.

“When I called him, I thought, probably like everyone else, I didn’t think he was a bad guy, and colleagues speak highly of him, but even dating back to college he’s got that cockiness and flair,” Licht said. “He’s got that, but it’s more of an extreme confidence.”

Mayfield’s resurgence could have a ripple effect in Tampa. Winning the NFC South, where Mayfield and fellow vet Derek Carr (Saints) are joined by unproven quarterbacks Desmond Ridder (Falcons) and Bryce Young (Panthers), is attainable. Continued winning would likely translate to continued stability for Bowles, Canales and the Bucs staff. Could Mayfield’s performance, if sustained, make him the long-team starter in Tampa? Possibly.

The Bucs might be receptive to a Mayfield market if he can find wins in a schedule that includes Detroit (4-1), Buffalo (3-2) and San Francisco (5-0) over the next six weeks. Licht said it’s his job to consider such scenarios, though it’s probably too early for that, and there haven’t been any substantive talks.

The team also has several big-money considerations, from impending free agents Evans and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to Wirfs, a 2025 free agent considered one of the game’s premier tackles.

If Mayfield is another Geno Smith-type story for Canales, Mayfield could look to Smith’s three-year, $75 million deal with Seattle as a blueprint. The next-closest comp for second-chance quarterbacks is Garoppolo’s three-year, $67.5 million deal with the Raiders.

The three-year Brady era brought Tampa 32 regular-season wins, three postseason berths and a Super Bowl for an organization that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007. The fan base wants to keep it going. The Bucs are realistic but hopeful.

“You can’t just pluck a Tom Brady from a tree,” Licht said. “But right now, we’re really excited. [Mayfield has] a lot of people around town, a lot of fans. … He’s not doing it in a fake way. He feels accepted and wanted. And we all just want to win.”

ESPN NFL reporters Jenna Laine and Sarah Barshop contributed to this article.

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