Let Baker cook.
That sentence might seem absurd. After all, Baker Mayfield is now suiting up for his fourth team in three years after the Browns, Panthers and Rams all had a look and said no thanks.
Still, for the Buccaneers, the best way to play is allowing Mayfield to throw more on first down, especially to Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
One of the biggest complaints emanating from Tampa Bay last year was a lack of passing on first down. So far, the early-down playcalling has still been an issue under first-year coordinator Dave Canales.
In their first two games—wins against the Vikings and Bears—the Bucs had 51 first-down attempts, excluding kneel-down situations. They ran the ball 30 times for a paltry 101 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. On 21 pass attempts, Tampa Bay went 15-of-21 for 155 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per attempt.
Against the Eagles, Canales did the unthinkable. He repeatedly tested the interior of Philadelphia’s defense, studded with stars like Fletcher Cox and rookie Jalen Carter, despite the Bucs having a lackluster interior front.
The result was predictable and disastrous in a 25-11 loss on Monday Night Football. Tampa Bay had 19 first-down calls, and threw the ball 10 times. Mayfield went 7-of-10 for 94 yards (9.4 YPA) with a sack. When running? The Bucs managed a hideous 21 yards on nine carries (2.3 YPC), including a safety.
If Tampa Bay continues to rely on early-down runs, it’s setting up a perfect situation for opponents. Consistently in second-and-longs, the Bucs became predictable while asking Mayfield to throw against nickel and dime packages. It’s a great way to have quick, failed drives, turnovers and sacks.
Under Canales, the Bucs are rebooting their offense after three seasons with Tom Brady under center. Canales, 42, replaced Byron Leftwich, andis running the unit after spending 13 years as an offensive assistant with the Seahawks, winning a Super Bowl in 2013.
It’s understandable for the offense to take time to find its own rhythm and learn how to best utilize the pieces at Canales’s disposal. And at 2-1, the Bucs are tied atop the NFC South with the Saints and Falcons.
But it makes no sense to play this way considering the personnel along the line and on the perimeter.
And while most teams wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of throwing aggressively with a journeyman quarterback, early returns say it’s the best course of action.
Additionally, nobody is asking Mayfield to throw deep. Tampa Bay can distribute the ball quickly and efficiently to Evans and Godwin, using scheme and design to give them opportunities for yards after the catch.
In both of Tampa Bay’s victories, Mayfield did a terrific job of managing the offense. He threw for 490 yards and three touchdowns without suffering a turnover, while only being sacked once—this despite the complete lack of a ground game, which entered Week 3 averaging 2.9 yards per carry.
Moving forward, the Bucs have a short week before a visit to the Saints. After a Week 5 bye, Tampa Bay hosts the Lions and Falcons. Through Week 3, those defenses rank ninth, 11th and eighth in yards allowed per game.
If Canales refuses to unleash his best two weapons on first downs, Tampa Bay has little chance of mounting much of an attack.
Nobody entered 2023 thinking Mayfield would be fantastic, likely the Bucs included. That’s fine, considering the first overall pick of 2018 tossed 27 touchdowns against 21 interceptions over the past two seasons.
But Mayfield is Tampa Bay’s quarterback this year.
And if the Buccaneers are going to win some games, they need to let Baker loose.