Why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe
Tom Brady is gone. Mock 'em all you want. This team did not hit reset. The 2023 Buccaneers explain to Go Long exactly how they'll turn Carlton Davis' words into reality, and win.
This is the fifth installment of our 2023 NFL Kickoff features.
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The weapon who’ll touch the football more than anyone here knows what it’s like to live in total squalor. Rachaad White was homeless. On his final football lifeline at Mount SAC junior college, about 25 miles outside of Los Angeles, he had nowhere to live.
A teammate was evicted from his apartment. So, knowing the lights and water would function through that final bill cycle, White and one of the team’s quarterbacks seized the opportunity. They snuck through a broken window for temporary shelter and this apartment was… beyond disgusting. At least a dozen players occupied this place simultaneously, and it showed with nearly every square inch of tables and countertops covered in trash. Extreme B.O. filled the air. Cockroaches darted all over the floor.
The showers were browning in rust. The toilet? Decaying.
There was no air conditioning, either, which made every smell 100x worse.
In other words? Exactly how 99.9 percent of the football world envisions the 2023 Tampa Bay Buccaneers living this season.
Say hello to the team left for dead.
Unlike those Jaguars, Lions and Giants, outside expectations aren’t merely low. They’re nonexistent. All because the greatest player in NFL history has bid farewell. No roses are being doled out to a team in transition mode — only photoshops of USC’s Caleb Williams in a Bucs uniform. Consume any sports media and the mention of “Buccaneers” is quickly followed by sighs, jokes, cynicism. Sportsbooks give the Bucs the 29th-best Super Bowl odds. Going all in on Tom Brady led to $75,323,702 in dead-cap money, which led to a Baker Mayfield vs. Kyle Trask quarterback competition, which… doesn’t exactly electrify the masses.
No wonder people lost their collective minds back on July 6.
You heard it here at Go Long. To refresh, Carlton Davis had a knifing message for the skeptics. “Anybody who feels we’ve lost Tom — and lost something — is going to be in for a rude awakening,” he said. “A rude awakening.” I asked why and he dug in. “We’re going to wreck shit. Like, wreck shit. Interceptions. Turnovers. Plays will be made. I will say. Plays. Will. Be. Made.” Davis did not take to Twitter in damage-control panic to blame the media, unlike others. He owned it. Nor was this a rogue, clout-chasing take he’s been boiling at 500 degrees. Because he’s not alone.
Alert: This is how players here genuinely feel.
Repeat Davis’ words back to teammates and they don’t reach for the fire extinguisher to cool such bombast with platitudes. Tampa Bay expects to win a lot of games this season. Start right in that secondary. The 2020 core that harassed Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl remains. Safety Antoine Winfield believes “100 percent” that their 2023 unit is the same belligerent bunch.
“We’re going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Winfield says. “You just have to wait until Sunday nights and prove everybody wrong.
“We’ve got talent everywhere. We’ve been playing with each other for years now. So having that chemistry is what makes us pretty dangerous. I’m looking forward to the year. It’s going to be an exciting one.”
White is naturally joyful. After escaping sights of murder as a kid, a broken clavicle that nearly stabbed a main artery and all those cockroaches in college — betting on himself at every turn — you’ll never see this 24-year-old down and out. Even then, he’s something more than joyful these days. Downright buoyant. The fact that those players accounting for so much dead money aren’t on the roster isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their voids create pockets of opportunity for young players. Only four on the team’s 90-man summer roster were older than 30 and White views all this change as refreshing. He’s been sensing far more camaraderie with this year’s team.
They’re dining together. Cracking more jokes. Linemen have even been out fishing for shark.
“People can say what they want to say,” White says. “We believe in what we’ve got and we’re going to come out swinging.”
On offense, he feels the same as Davis.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” White says “We’ve got a lot of strong links. Honestly, we’re trying to go in with no weak links. I’m with CD. I’m with Carlton.”
Wide receiver Chris Godwin accurately points out that millions were crowning the Bucs last season, and that such adoration didn’t get them anywhere. They had talent — “all of the talent you could ask for” — yet staggered through a sloppy 8-9 season. All offseason talk to him is exactly that. Talk.
“Everybody outside of the building expects us to be one of the worst teams in the league,” Godwin says. “But it doesn’t matter what anybody expects to happen. All that matters is what happens when we go out there on the field and start playing games. That’s really our sole focus, to do our best to build a team.
“A team that’s together. A team that fights for each other.”
A team, of course, that cornerback Zyon McCollum predicts will “come from behind like assassins and take people by the throat.”
Not that the Bucs wants anything to do with an “underdog” label, and that’s where this gets interesting.
Coaches across the NFL love to tell players they’re being counted out when, in truth, such a tactic is contrived B.S. Remember Mahomes shouting that his Chiefs were doubted during their Super Bowl parade? Ugh. Can’t blame the impulse. Everyone in this sport scavenges the headlines for criticism. For fuel. And a Bucs team that’s being unanimously dismissed couldn’t care less. It's easy pickings, but do not expect head coach Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Dave Canales or anyone on staff to dredge up such emotion.
Their reasoning is simple. Coaches don’t look around the locker room and see Buster Douglas, Mike Eruzione, Rulon Gardner, or any members from the ‘03 Appalachian State Mountaineers. Rather, Super Bowl winners. The Buccaneers expect to compete this season. That’s all Canales has ever known, having reached the postseason in 10 of his 13 seasons as an assistant coach with the Seattle Seahawks. He’s arguably the most important person in the building, as the man who’ll try to resurrect the career of Baker Mayfield. And he’s blunt. He doesn’t want to motivate players based off of anyone else’s opinion.
Good coverage? Bad? Canales remembers Pete Carroll sincerely never giving a damn in Seattle. Any time spent using the media as a tool was precious time taken away from improving in pass pro, running better routes vs. man, etc. Canales will be no different.
“I don’t see myself using that narrative as a motivation for my guys,” Canales says. “Because as we sit here? Talking to them and looking around the room? The guys look around to each other and they see the names at the different positions and there’s not a feeling that we’re the underdog. I understand people are writing headlines and doing all that stuff. For our group, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like we’ve got what we need.”
Maybe the Bucs are letting a golden opportunity pass by. Whatever.
Expectations of others are inconsequential. They’ve got expectations of their own.
Says Winfield: “A successful season to me is being the No. 1 defense. Winning the division. Making a great playoff run. Getting to the Super Bowl again.”
Inform Winfield that people will hear those words — “Super Bowl” — and suggest he get drug-tested, and he doesn’t give a damn. Doesn’t even laugh it off.
The Buccaneers would just assume wreck shit in 2023, as Davis predicts.
One by one, they lay out their plan.
He knew the fit was perfect immediately. When Dave Canales interviewed for the offensive coordinator job, Todd Bowles explained how he wanted to win games this season and it was all a familiar tune. He agreed wholeheartedly with the head coach’s philosophy because it’s all he’s known in the NFL.
Run the ball. Lean into a murderous defense. Take selective shots downfield in the pass game.
“I feel confident,” the OC says, “about getting that done philosophically.”
Step One toward shocking the football world may resemble a quantum leap to those who watched games last season. Tampa Bay’s rushing game was the worst in the NFL, and it was not close. They rushed for 1,308 yards in 17 games. Good for 32nd of 32 teams. They gained 3.4 yards per rush. Also, 32nd. By The End of Brady’s Bucs run, the offense became an arcade game of Pop-A-Shot with the 45-year-old taking snaps and getting rid of the ball in 2.45 seconds.
Expect these Buccaneers to stay committed to running the ball. Canales wants to dictate the terms and — looking back at the ’22 struggles — the main problem was a lack of attempts. He points to Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win. In that 31-9 bloodbath, the Bucs’ running backs combined for 150 yards on 18 carries. Canales correctly labeled this a “dominant run performance” and points out that two coaches from that game — run game coordinator (Harold Goodwin) and offensive line coach (Joe Gilbert) — are still here and part of the solution.
Limiting turnovers is the No. 1 emphasis and Canales believes you do this by sticking to the run while blending in both a quick, rhythmic passing game and play-action. The Bucs want to stay on-schedule, he says, to create third-and-shorts. And before you roll your eyes and write Canales off as a dinosaur, please know that his plan of attack is not a page out of Paul Brown’s 1950 playbook. This is not a “conservative” mindset, he clarifies, rather a “patient” mindset.
The Buccaneers will chip… chip… chip away, and when a 1-on-1 shot deep presents itself? They’ll take it. They’ll connect.
One analogy explains everything he wants his offense to look like in 2023.
“One of the things I realized over the years — which fit Russell Wilson so well — was it’s really like the heavyweight fighter mentality,” Canales says, “where you’re not necessarily trying to win on the card by getting the most punches in. It’s keeping your gloves up, it’s having the right fundamentals and then when the opportunity strikes? You take your knockout shots. That’s going to be what we try to do here.”
This element of surprise is one of the most underrated variables in offensive football today.
Tampa Bay won’t blindly chase that deep ball. Take too many shots downfield, he points out, and defenses see it coming. That’s when a DC releases the hounds. A world the Bucs don’t want to live in.
Canales first joined the Seahawks as a quality control coach (2010- ’12), moved to assistant quarterbacks coach (’13- ’14), then wide receivers (’15- ’17), then quarterbacks (’18- ’19, ’22) with two years as the pass-game coordinator in-between (2020- ’21). His mea culpa came last season with Smith — a player, like these Bucs, also left for dead — winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (69.8%), while throwing for 4,282 yards and 30 touchdowns. (More on Geno soon.)
Whenever the Seahawks’ staff put their heads together to find a common denominator in their offensive success, it was the run game. The best red-zone teams are the best running teams, Canales notes. They hand the ball off to a back at the 14-yard line, block it up, score, force defensive coordinators to creep bodies into the box.
“And if you can play the defense into single-high football, then you’ve got some options in the pass game down the field,” Canales says. “But it’s the commitment to doing it. I’m talking to myself here. Because every coordinator I’ve worked for, they see it and they get excited about these opportunities. But you can go too far trying to make explosive plays instead of just letting them come to you. So that’s what I learned — to have that patience. To know: ‘Stick with the gameplan. Stick to what you felt really good about with a cup of coffee in the solitude of your office, in the calm and quiet there.’”
This may not be the sort of offensive talk that sparks a podcast series or earns Canales “genius” labels. But he’s confident it can — and will — work because he’s seen it work for a decade-plus. The Seahawks were at their best when they got a lead and knew exactly how to preserve that lead.
Canales wants the Bucs to play with the same distinct “attitude.”
“And,” he adds, “that doesn’t mean we’re going to be dumb and just keep plugging the ball and plugging the ball in. If the run’s killing ‘em, we’ll keep doing that. If we’re protecting well and we can throw it, we’ll do that. We want to be unpredictable.”
The Buccaneers obviously did not have excess cash available to execute this gameplan in free agency and center Ryan Jensen’s season is over before it began due to his knee not responding. Retirement may be next. Help is on the way, however, in Cody Mauch. The 48th overall pick out of North Dakota State will start at right guard. Any team seeking such an attitude adjustment should probably roll with an animal rocking long red hair and no front teeth who enjoys cracking a joke seconds before pile-driving opponents into the dirt.
The player who can most turn Canales’ vision into reality is Rachaad White. The OC gushes over his top back’s ubiquitous game, saying White is so natural he could’ve been an NFL wide receiver if he so chose. Calling him “smooth” and “patient” and “bigger than people think,” he plans on getting the ball to White every way imaginable. When needed, the 2022 third-round pick can run with power.
Adds Canales: “I’m really excited to have him be featured to what we’re trying to do.”
After splitting carries with Leonard Fournette as a rookie, White is eager for the increased workload. He describes this as a West Coast scheme that’ll incorporate different types of runs. We’ll see more zone-blocking concepts and countless plays dressed up with an element of misdirection. He identified the same problem.
“We were 32nd in the run but let’s not be 32nd in attempts,” White says. “You’ve got to stick to it. There’s going to be rough games. But you’ve got to stick to it and grind it out, and it’ll all look good at the end of the game and at the end of the season. … We’re going to run the ball a lot. It’s going to be a new look, and it’ll be what’s the best look for the 2023 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We’re going to be a real physical offense. Real nitty gritty.”
Even the wide receivers potentially hindered by this shift are on-board because they know how badly a run game is needed. Godwin, suddenly one of the older players on the team, loves the youthful energy of Tampa Bay’s roster. He sees hungry players all over the field — like White — and agrees that the complete absence of a run game made last year’s team grossly one-dimensional. “By actually trying to be better,” the receiver says, flatly, “that puts us in a really good position to at least have a shot at being better at running the ball.”
So, this is White’s big chance. His perspective should come in handy.
He was 11 years old at the time, possibly 12, when he first witnessed a murder. From the inside of his grandmother’s house, White was watching a car show in Kansas City. One driver was popped and the car rolled right into the front yard. White saw the life leave the driver’s body. He’d go on to witness two more murders — imagery that’ll stick with him forever and remind White that he never, ever wants to go back to that place. Or that grimy apartment in JUCO.
“You understand that opportunities like this don’t come around at all really,” White says. “It’s rare. So, you just cherish it. You don’t let this opportunity pass you by. You work hard and you do everything you can. I’ll be myself, be me, have fun and play the game I love.
“Memories, to me, I cherish them as blessings because no matter where you come from, you’ve got a chance to do what you want to do. Do you.”
Everything will start with Rachaad White on offense. Fittingly, now, No. 1 in your program.
And the only way for this team to run to glory is for that defense currently foaming at the mouth to now do exactly what Carlton Davis promised.
Our grandkids will thumb through the archives of Super Bowl Champions and most likely think of Tom Brady upon seeing the 2020 Buccaneers. Myth-making will immortalize this night as the quarterback’s final GOAT coronation. But anyone who actually watched that game will know the most iconic moment from the quarterback’s seventh of seven Super Bowl titles came with Brady on the sideline.
Fourth and 10. Four minutes left. 31-9.
The slaughter was nearly complete when one final heave from Patrick Mahomes was broken up by Antoine Winfield Jr. With impeccable timing, Winfield then leaned toward Hill and taunted the receiver with a peace sign to the face. The same peace sign Hill directed at the Bucs en route to the end zone earlier that season.
Sports do not get any more satisfying than this gesture.
A gesture worth every penny of the ensuing $7,815 fine.
“I looked him dead in his eyes,” Winfield says. “The thing that was going through my mind was the game before. He killed us in the game we played in the regular season. All they did was play those highlights leading up to the Super Bowl. It was pissing me off. So I said, ‘OK, when I get the opportunity, I’ve got to do something.’”
We should all dream of an NFL that, one day, rewards such perfect taunts $7,815. Until then, this moment serves as a reminder that this Buccaneers’ defense is comprised of carnivores who shut down Mahomes, Hill, Travis Kelce, Andy Reid and a Chiefs machine that’s trending toward dynasty status. It hasn’t always been pretty. Obviously, the Dallas Cowboys hung 31 points and 425 yards on Tampa Bay in the wild card last season.
But to stun us all and win this season, the core starters from that Super Bowl unit need to star. Not a ludicrous proposition.
You already heard from Carlton Davis, the cornerback from hardscrabble Miami Gardens, Fla., who’ll keep on punching wideouts at the line of scrimmage. Both he and Jamel Dean are the rare cornerbacks willing to spar with receivers 1 on 1, crucial given how much Bowles wants to blitz. At linebacker, Lavonte David hasn’t shown decline through 11 seasons, 1,346 tackles. The fact that the Buccaneers chose to bring the 33-year-old back at $4.5 million is full proof of their mindset. It would’ve been easy to fire-sale off vets with an eye toward the future. Up front, Vita Vea is still the Brink’s Truck-built nose in the middle of the 3-4 front. Edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who had 19.5 sacks in ’19, returns after an injury-plagued season. Football becomes an entirely new form of release for Barrett through what’s no doubt been the most traumatic, unfathomable year of his life. (His 2-year-old daughter drowned in April. He’s been candid about the “daily battle.”)
The ultimate wild card is Devin White, the Mahomes antidote in that Super Bowl, who claims to be a happy camper after previously seeking a new deal. The Bucs obviously could not afford the $18M-$20M per year he craved, and White has since called his trade request “selfish.” Playing on his fifth-year option, $11.7 million, he’ll now have every financial incentive to perform.
Winfield is also in his prime.
He believes his command of the secondary has improved sharply since that Super Bowl win and puts it on himself to make sure all 11 are on the same page.
Whereas Davis’ football roots are in those crazy youth football games down in South Florida — taking cover to the sound of gunfire — Antoine Jr. always had Antoine Sr., a 5-foot-9 corner who defied the odds over an NFL career that spanned from 1999 to 2012. Growing up, Winfield Jr. would visit Mankato, Minn., each summer for Vikings training camp. There was never any doubt in his mind that he’d be a pro football player himself. At a very, very young age, Antoine Sr. had Antoine Jr. on the field ripping through footwork drills. And as Dad prepped for offenses through the 2000s, his son was right there studying film with him in his bedroom.
Friends consumed cartoons. He learned route concepts.
One play he loves is his father’s interception of Aaron Rodgers in ‘09. The way he blanketed Greg Jennings on MNF and masterfully opened up on a comeback route. Mostly, Dad was never afraid to hurl his diminutive frame into the legs of running backs who had 40 to 50 pounds on him. He played with a vintage disregard for his own health.
The more Antoine Jr. watches footage of Antoine Sr. today as an NFL player himself, the more it feels like they’re one and the same.
“We’re both not the biggest guys, but we’re going to come down and hit,” Winfield says. “Even the way we move, it’s weird to see. I go to my highlights and then I see my Dad’s — they’re identical. A lot of my game is from him.”
To elevate, the Buccaneers’ defense will need to force more turnovers. Twenty wasn’t enough last season. Davis admitted he needs to start catching those balls he bats away. Winfield hopes to be a human torpedo jarring fumbles loose. Like his father, who had 27 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles in his career. All camp, creating turnovers has been the No. 1 emphasis on this Buccaneers defense. For turnovers to become more habit, than luck. Bowles ramped up the takeaway drills.
Winfield echoes Davis, too. He wants his violent play style to become contagious with the young players filling those gaps around the mainstays. For his No. 1 defense goal to become real, the Bucs must dominate every practice.
“Drill that into your brothers’ brains,” Winfield says, “that we want to dominate this season.”
Construct a run game. Fluster opposing QBs. All the Buccaneers need now is for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — a player on his fourth team — to completely turn his career around.
Baker’s last shot
He was written off years before his viral postgame interview. Exactly six years before telling ESPN’s Lisa Salters, “They wrote me off, I ain’t write back,” Geno Smith stood in the corner of the Buffalo Bills’ dungeon of a visitor’s locker room. It was Sept. 15, 2016 and he was a full year removed from a teammate (I.K. Enemkpali) punching him the jaw. A punch that opened the door for Ryan Fitzpatrick to step in, win 10 games and earn a contract extension that all but rendered Smith irrelevant, forgotten.
I was working for Bleacher Report at the time, and wanted to understand what was possibly going through Smith’s head. He was in his fourth season. Destined to vagabond his way through the NFL as a backup before retiring.
Smith did not hold back.
“Eventually everybody will see,” Smith said then. “Eventually everybody will see. … You’ve got to roll with the punches.”
And: “I believe in myself. I was the starting quarterback at one point. I don’t see why I can't be.”
And: “Life throws obstacles at you, and you just have to take them — and it really shows your character, what type of man you are. Are you going to lay down and cry? Or are you going to stand back up and keep fighting?”
And: “It’s going to come. I’m way too talented.”
Then, he waited. Smith toggled from the Jets… to the Giants… to the Chargers… to, finally, the Seattle Seahawks where he linked up with Canales. After two seasons as Wilson’s backup, he beat out Drew Lock for the starting job and those words in Orchard Park, N.Y. proved prophetic. I’ll admit I didn’t believe Smith for one second that night. At that point, he had already started 29 games. It seemed fairly obvious the quarterback from West Virginia wouldn’t cut it. Yet, with a Pro Bowl season and a playoff berth, Smith earned himself a three-year, $75 million contract and — with another exceptional draft — the Seahawks are hoping to take another step.
Possibly no coach on staff was more instrumental in Smith discovering a new gear than Canales.
Now, Canales is hoping to do the same exact thing with another quarterback being written off: Baker Mayfield.
Smith’s awakening did not happen overnight. He had time to grasp the offense behind the scenes and rep the same throws as Wilson after practice. Walking back to the locker room, many days, the backup would tell Canales precisely which plays he’d love to run if he ever got his shot again. Both prepared for a moment they weren’t even sure would ever come. Their conversation was ongoing. Smith threw five passes in ’20 and played well in a ’21 four-game cameo. Ahead of ’22, he fine-tuned all of his footwork in the spring — reached “the best shape of his life,” Canales adds — beat out Lock and shocked us all.
His breakthrough? All of his experience led to more patience in the pocket. Exactly how Canales envisions building an offense here.
“He trusted doing the right thing with the ball,” Canales says. “Like we were just talking about — he didn’t over-try. He didn’t overextend. He just kept it locked in and he threw it to the first open guy. Life’s better that way. We’ve learned from a lot of these veteran quarterbacks who’ve played late into their careers that they trust, hey, ‘Boom. Take the open guy. Don’t go hunting this third thing if the first two are open. That’ll come. We’ll see it on the pictures between the drives and then we’ll take advantage of it later.’ He bought into that.”
There is one major difference. Canales has had all of one offseason to prep Mayfield. Tampa Bay waited until last week to even announce Mayfield as the starter ahead of Kyle Trask.
But, hey. If Canales was able to rehabilitate one broken quarterback, why not another?
He’ll be Mayfield’s seventh offensive coordinator. Like Smith, he’s confident Mayfield’s topsy-turvy, 31-38 career as a starter has helped him understand there’s no need to force “special” every single play. He wants him to be selectively special. For instance, in a 2-minute drive.
Otherwise, the quarterback can follow the design. Hit the first receiver in his progression. End the play on the Buccaneers’ terms.
“How do we play football from the quarterback position,” Canales says, “that marries the strength of our defense? That’s the part I’m excited about.”
Mayfield’s arm strength surprised Canales. The coach believes he will be able to deliver those knockout shots deep. This QB hasn’t had that QB’s sabbatical to sit, wait, learn, reflect. Still, working four weeks last season with Sean McVay likely helped in that Canales coached with OC Shane Waldron in Seattle and Waldron is a branch straight from the McVay tree. There is carryover in running a multitude of different plays from a small number of formations. Through OTAs, minicamp and training camp, Canales was careful not to throw too much at Mayfield and the entire offense.
It’s also no surprise that this new coach bounces around the practice field like his former boss in Seattle. More than anything, Canales will try to approach the sport the same way as Pete Carroll. He wants to make football fun and the best way to accomplish this is by making sure guys can play fast.
“That’s when you see the characters, the personalities really come to life,” he says. “It’s when they know what they’re doing. That is when they can create. Creativity comes from security and security comes from confidence. That’s really what I’m trying to create here. Keeping it simple so we can coach it well. So they can retain it, play fast and have a lot of fun. Because if they’re worried about a million different plays and they’re stressed out and bogged down? They’re going to play slow and they’re going to not have fun. They’re going to be stressed.”
Personalities should match. This is a quarterback who fits with those angry players on defense. As Browns fullback Andy Janovich once told us, he’s “one of the best f--king guys that you’ll ever meet in your g--damn life.” When it comes to pain, such as playing through that torn labrum in 2021? “You could cut his dick off,” Janovich continued, “and he wouldn’t f--king say shit.”
Intangibles were never the question. That’s what got Mayfield drafted ahead of Josh Allen once upon a time.
“He’s got charisma,” Canales says. “He works the room. He just connects with them. He connects with the different positions.”
Now, he gets his shot. Like Geno.
After winning the job, Mayfield did not jump for joy. One of the only moments he even cracked the slightest of smiles through the 8-minute presser was when asked about the news he’s seeking the misappropriation of $12 million by an Austin, Texas investment firm broke last week. A particularly messy situation given his father and brother work for the firm. Asked about this, Mayfield called this petition “a long time coming,” adding that he’s been dealing with this issue for years.
“Mentally I’m in a much better head space,” Mayfield said.
There’s a chance he’s been fighting demons behind the scenes.
He doesn’t want bouquets. He clearly was not satisfied with anything. Mayfield said he’s grateful to still be one of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but that’s about it. He sees substantial growth out of everyone in this new offense, calling the improvement “unreal.” Echoing Canales, he said the key is players understanding the objective of certain plays and he fully expects to play fast Week 1 against the Vikings.
As the Buccaneers step out of Tom Brady’s shadow, he’ll be front and center.
“I know how talented I am,” Mayfield said. “I know what type of leader I am. Now, it’s time for the real thing.”
A new team
Access to the most popular sport in the nation, most assume, has never been better. If an NFL transaction goes down, that transaction is intravenously injected into your veins via iPhone alert. Fans feel as if they’re closer than ever thanks to endless technological booms when — in reality? — how teams win championships is a mystery. Hard Knocks has mostly become a joke with teams’ editorial fingerprints all over the final product. Documentaries on Netflix are often fluffed in propaganda.
Football is the toughest sport to figure out, far more complicated than basketball where max deals turn 15-win bottom-feeders into contenders. Far more complicated than baseball, a sport cleanly understood through numbers. Fifty-three players must come together in a way iPhone alerts can never capture. Mayfield knows. His ‘19 Cleveland Browns were (allegedly) overflowing with talent and went 6-10. The 2020 Bucs were a team that appeared to be at the other end of the spectrum, a team that did win it all with Tom Brady and friends.
Yet even players on this team know a championship cannot be purchased at the store.
So, when Chris Godwin began this conversation by saying the Bucs needed to become a team that’d fight for each other, the wide receiver let that word — “team” — hang in the air for an extra moment.
How do the Buccaneers get to that point? First, he points to chemistry.
“That’s something you have to be intentional about,” Godwin says. “But it’s also something that everybody has to buy into. We’re not just a bunch of names out there rolling the ball out and going to make it happen. Football doesn’t work that way. Everybody has to be on the same page — offensively and defensively and special teams.”
Next, it’s leaning into your identity. Bowles has been making it clear to players that the Bucs need to be physically and mentally tough.
Thirdly, smarts. Nothing matters if you’re wildly undisciplined and blow assignments.
The NFC South is wide open. Expect the Atlanta Falcons to be a problem with an offense most of the league isn’t equipped to stop and the New Orleans Saints are in a perpetual state of all-in. Once again, they restructured a slew of contracts to win. Meanwhile, even the Carolina Panthers have hope in the form of No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young.
And we’re supposed to think the Buccaneers can win the division? Whatever we think truly does not matter to them.
“We’ve got to be honest with ourselves and how we’re working,” Godwin says. “We know we have the talent. We know we have the pieces that we need to make it shake. We have a good coaching staff. All that matters is what we’re building. People can talk and say whatever they want to say, and they’ll continue to. Just like if we start off really hot, there will be a bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon and saying the opposite about us. … It’ll just be what it’s always been — talk.”
The new quarterback in town will have options in Mike Evans, who’s aiming for his 10th straight 1,000-yard season. In Trey Palmer, who was a one-man highlight reel much of the summer. And in Godwin, a forgotten talent who will not allow the Buccaneers to spiral.
After undergoing surgery to repair his ACL and MCL on Jan. 3, 2022, the wideout played in Week 1 of last season. It felt like “a war” was being fought in his leg. Godwin did everything in his power simply to play last season and, in 15 games, he still caught 104 balls for 1,023 yards. All offseason, all summer, he’s been thrilled to get into the lab and actually dissect his game. Repeatedly, he insists he’s “grateful” for the chance to run routes and catch passes and work on his game. He may be in Year 7 but this has felt like Year 3 to him. A chance to truly hone in on his strengths and weaknesses and assert himself as one of the game’s best receivers.
YAC has been his top priority. Part of the problem was the scheme. Before, he worked almost exclusively in the slot and caught a lot of short passes. With Canales, we’ll see Godwin lined up more outside. His career-low 9.8 yards per reception was also a product of health because he wasn’t himself. This season, Godwin expects to leave more defensive backs in the dust.
Whether it’s his health, all the youth around him, the new verbiage of a new playbook or the subconscious absence of any expectations, he’s not sure. He cannot put this feeling completely into words.
But Chris Godwin knows this: He has never felt so refreshed.
“I can’t stress this enough: I’m very grateful that I get to do what I get to do,” Godwin says. “I really have a great appreciation, and I’m going to continue to stay in that mentality. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. So, I’m going to enjoy it while I can. I’m going to be the best teammate I can be, because those are the things that are important to me. Those are the things I personally can have a direct impact on.”
Those three hours on an NFL Sunday have a funny way of extracting new emotions. The tone of any wide receiver’s voice can change when a ball sails over his head or skips to his feet. When L’s add up. But for a wide receiver transferring from Tom Brady to Baker Mayfield, this is still striking optimism. And not uncommon.
Each year, a team nobody expects to win finds a way. They’re oblivious to former players on ESPN ripping their roster to shreds. Last season, the Seahawks did the honors. This season, the Buccaneers expect to be that team.
As it turns out, all Carlton Davis did was say the quiet part out loud. The rest of the world may view the 2023 Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a lost, deserted franchise.
The team itself does not care.
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