Tampa Bay BuccaneersAfter three seasons with Tom Brady under center, Head Coach Todd Bowles and the Buccaneers will face new challenges in 2023, including identifying a new starting quarterback, as they try to keep their postseason streak aliveScott Smith
The word 'era' may be overused in pro sports, but it's hard not to speak in such dramatic terms when the defining player on your team for a stretch of seasons is Tom Brady. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2020-22 made three straight playoff appearances, won a Super Bowl and became fixtures on the NFL's prime-time showcases. It will definitely be remembered as the Tom Brady era in Tampa.
And now the Buccaneers are beginning the post-Tom Brady era, whose narrative will surely center around the team's efforts to move forward without the G.O.A.T. Head Coach Todd Bowles, however, plans for it to be defined by a continuation of the Bucs' recent winning ways.
"I think when you lose the greatest quarterback of all time, everybody just assumes you're going to be bad," said Bowles. "At least that's the narrative, but it takes a team to win a Super Bowl and it also takes a team to play ballgames. Tom is great; by all accolades, he gets everything he deserves and he should. But to bring in guys that can still challenge and win, you just have to kind of prepare differently as far as what you're trying to do, as opposed to just saying Tom brought a presence with him...Everybody else has got to earn their stripes, and we're good with that.
"That doesn't mean you take a step down as far as your process of trying to win. I think the guys understand that, and we have some great players on our team. We just happened to have the greatest on our team, but we still have great players on our team to compete and we look forward and we're excited going forward to see what they can do."
Indeed, the offense that helped Brady rack up nearly 15,000 passing yards and more than 100 touchdown passes over the past three seasons still boasts a multitude of stars, beginning with wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Russell Gage is a strong third receiver option assuming he has better luck with injuries in his second Bucs season. The offensive line is anchored by two Pro Bowlers in Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen. Second-year players Rachaad White and Cade Otton were impressive as rookies and look ready to contribute even more in 2023. The Bucs' defense was able to re-sign Lavonte David, Jamel Dean and Anthony Nelson and should remain one of the league's better units. Whoever ends up as the immediate successor to Brady doesn't have to be 'Superman,' according to Bowles. He just needs to "drive the car."
Still, there is undeniably a question of who that driver will be, and that question which apparently will be answered via a competition between third-year player Kyle Trask and recent free agency addition Baker Mayfield. The Buccaneers took Trask with the last pick of the second round in the 2021 draft but found him almost no playing time the last two years while chasing more championships with Brady. Mayfield, the first-overall pick in the 2018 draft, has the advantage of NFL experience, including a strong 2020 playoff season in Cleveland and a surprisingly effective relief performance for the Rams late last season.
Bowles, who is in attendance at the NFL's Annual Meeting in Arizona and spoke to the media for the first time on Tuesday, said he was impressed by Mayfield coming out of Oklahoma in 2018 and still sees many of the same positive qualities.
"It gives us competition," said Bowles of the addition of a second quarterback to a roster that previously only featured Trask. "It gives us another warrior. It gives us a guy that's gone to the playoffs before. At least you have a proven guy, someone to compete with Kyle that will still make sure we haven't dipped too low."
Mayfield played four seasons in Cleveland but was traded to Carolina last July after the Browns traded for former Houston Texan passer Deshaun Watson. In 2020, he helped guide the Browns to their first playoff spot in 18 years, in the process throwing for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and no interceptions. Last season, after being waived by the Panthers in December he was claimed by the Rams and stunningly led Los Angeles to a 17-16 win over Las Vegas less than 48 hours later.
"He has natural leadership skills; it's not overblown," said Bowles. "Guys naturally gravitate towards him. He has an excitement he brings toward the game, and he's hungry. And I can live with that. I can live with that right there. I liked him a couple years ago; that we got him now with an opportunity to have a chance to start, I think it's a good thing for us.
"You like his moxie, you like his leadership skills, you liked the way he can get out and throw on the run some, you like the fact that he's won in several places where he's gone. You like that leadership about him. You like the natural-ness about him. It will be great for him to come in and compete with Kyle. I think they're two different types of quarterbacks and I think we can win with either one."
Bowles also used the word "moxie" to complement Trask and praised the young quarterback for constantly putting in extra work.
"Kyle does more work on the side away from the cameras; every time I look up and come in the office, he's out there working by himself and trying to get better. I think that's number-one for a quarterback to have, is the inner drive. His inner drive is there and he can read defenses, he can process very quickly and he can run an offense. It was just, when you have a guy like Tom Brady, a guy like that doesn't get many reps. So it's hard to do. So I look forward to him to come out this year and really show what he can do.
"He understands he has a chance to start. He's working his tail off. Me and Kyle have a very good relationship. We've been honest from Day One since he came in there, and I look forward to seeing what he does."
The Buccaneers haven't had a true quarterback competition in training camp for decades. And, of course, most teams would prefer to be settled at that all-important position before August. But it's the post-Tom Brady era now, and the team is definitely going to look different, and operate differently. For Bowles, it's an exciting challenge.
"I feel very energized because it's the unknown, and we do have good players on our team," he said. "So I look forward to those guys stepping up and making the difference. We have to go about it with different players, but everyone does. That's just part of football. You can't bring in a guy and say he's the next Tom Brady. You're going to bring in another good quarterback and let him run the team and be himself, and have things around him to make him be himself, and you win that way."