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Buccaneers ‘Playing Free’ Under Baker Mayfield in Post–Tom Brady Year

Tampa Bay is more of a threat to go to the Super Bowl than people think. Plus, more on the Eagles and Jason Kelce, Matt LaFleur’s love for his quarterback, the coaching carousel and more in Albert Breer’s Tuesday notes.

• There are eight teams left, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of them, without Tom Brady.

And after Monday night’s 32–9 beatdown of the defending conference champion Philadelphia Eagles, they can now say they’ve made it a round further in their first post–Brady year than they did in their final year with the greatest quarterback that ever played.

Pretty wild? Sure. But Tampa’s good now for the same reason Brady signed with the team in the first place, and that’s because the roster is still in really good shape, and there’s a good coaching staff. The difference this year versus the team that Dallas ousted in the wild-card round last year is in what all of us saw Sunday—one team looked loose and free, and played like it wanted to be there a lot more than its opponent did.

Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates after leading the Buccaneers past the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC wild-card game Sunday.

Mayfield was outstanding against the Eagles, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the energy that we’re having,” star receiver Chris Godwin told me from the locker room postgame. “Last year, we were playing really tight. I think that it showed. I think that this year, guys are playing free. Especially the last month, guys have been playing much more freely and just trying to have a good time. This game is such a special game. You don’t really know how much time you have in it. Go out there and let’s enjoy this s---.”

Godwin then summed it up like this: “We’re having fun playing football, and that’s going to be important for us moving forward.”

Indeed, the Bucs looked like a team playing with house money, and the result was a million-dollar performance, with a defense that owned the line of scrimmage against the Eagles’ vaunted offensive front (42 rush yards allowed, three sacks, tush push denied), a run game that was steady (119 yards without a single run over 12 yards), and the quarterback who replaced Brady playing (22-of-36, 337 yards, three TDs) a better game than the legend himself did in the same spot.

And in a way, that’s what Baker Mayfield’s teammates expected just in how the oft-doubted, repeatedly discarded quarterback fits in so well with a group of players that probably never got enough credit for how good the Bucs have been the past four years.

“He’s fit right in,” Godwin says. “The good thing about Baker is he didn’t come in trying to be Tom’s replacement. He came in just trying to be Baker Mayfield. That’s exactly who we needed him to be. We want him to be the best version of himself. His personality, the way he works, the way he interacts with guys, the guys can feel how genuine he is. He goes out there and he fights.

“He almost gets his head taken off on some plays. He takes some tough shots and gets banged up. But every time he gets back up and goes out there, you know that he’s going to keep fighting. Everybody on the team is that way. We have a group of fighters. Roll the ball out there and see what happens.”

And what happened Monday, in a lot of ways, was an explosion of all that’s gone right—including what Brady was able to supercharge with his arrival—over the last half-decade here.

That doesn’t mean the Bucs are going back to the Super Bowl. But it does mean they’re more of a threat to get there than most people thought.

“It wasn’t like the nucleus of the championship team wasn’t still here,” Godwin says. “It wasn’t like we didn’t have talented guys that worked their asses off. People were just writing us off from the beginning. Like we’ve been saying and preaching all year, last year, we came into the season, and people expected us to do a lot of things. You don’t win games on paper. You win them on the field. We just didn’t play well enough on the field last year. This year, same thing, but it flipped.

“People wrote us off in the beginning. We were like, That’s all right. We know the games are played on the field.”

More than anything, the Bucs are playing like a group that appreciates being out there, and it showed Monday. And it should make them, to steal Mayfield’s word, pretty dangerous going forward.

Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

Allen flexed for Buffalo's fans after scoring on a 52-yard touchdown run. 

• The Bills have been in the playoffs in six of Sean McDermott’s seven years at the helm, so they have a good frame of reference on it—and those guys certainly would not characterize the past few days as a normal postseason weekend.

And maybe that was most apparent Sunday when McDermott had his strength coaches conduct a team stretch over Zoom.

Conventional, that was not, but it is the sort of adjusting on the fly his team has gotten used to over the past few years, starting with the weirdness of the COVID-19 year, and spilling into 2022 in which the Bills were displaced twice by snowstorms, and dealt with Damar Hamlin’s medical emergency as the regular season turned to the playoffs. This time around, it was another snowstorm, probably not as bad as the two last year, but bad enough for the governor of New York to enact a travel ban and push the team’s playoff opener back.

“So we weren’t able to have meetings,” McDermott told me from his stadium office early Monday night. “I think that was probably the biggest thing. From a routine standpoint, where you’re able to watch a little bit of film in the last 24 or 36 hours leading up to the game or make some small tweaks to the plan, I think that’s probably the biggest thing [we lost]. And just being out of routine and the guys maybe worried about them sitting on their couch all day long and watching the snow.”

Hence, the team stretch, which wound up being part of it all working out.

The Bills are moving forward now to the divisional round after a 31–17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, showing again that what their 2023 team may lack aesthetically, it has more than made up for in resilience. This one, like a few others through the team’s six-game win streak (its last loss was before Thanksgiving), wasn’t a Mona Lisa. But as for any concern about the team’s readiness? McDermott knew better than to worry too much about that.

His confidence was justified almost right away with the way his team came out of the gate. The offense churned out two 80-yard drives, with two of three touchdowns scored on explosive plays—one a 29-yard dime from Josh Allen to rising rookie Dalton Kincaid, and the other a 52-yard sprint to the end zone from Allen. The defense generated two turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes, and came close on a third.

Then, a field goal got blocked, the Steelers got hot, scored on both sides of the half, and cut the deficit to 24–17 with 10:32 left. As McDermott could’ve expected, that’s where the Bills responded. First, the offense ripped off a seven-play, 70-yard drive to make it 31–17. Then, the injury-ravaged defense forced the Steelers off the field with a four-and-out.

“They went out there with the closer’s mentality that they needed to have in that situation, and I think that that’s important,” McDermott says. “They understood what was at hand there up 14, [and the] Steelers had the ball. To close it out pretty much right there says a lot about their guts.”

And they’ll need everything in their stomachs going forward. With Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano out, and DaQuan Jones just back, and Von Miller having fought through injuries, Buffalo sustained another big blow Monday with Terrel Bernard, who’d taken over at linebacker with Milano down, carted off.

Which, the way the past couple of years have gone, is just another log on the fire.

“I’m so proud of the way the guys hung in there,” McDermott says. “It’s been amazing. It really has. It’s been all year for the most part. That’s not making excuses, but in Game 4 is when it really started hitting us. I thought we were getting a little help there two weeks ago, then last week we got hit again. Tonight hit again. We can’t stop here. We gotta keep going. We’re going to keep going.”

And with the Super Bowl champs up next, McDermott was honest in saying his first steps in preparing for the Chiefs this week, with Kansas City on two days’ more rest than Buffalo, is getting with the trainers and simply “seeing who we can use; that’s the start.”

The good news is McDermott can trust his players and coaches will take care of the rest.

• Nick Sirianni has had a pretty weird three-year run as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

He went 3–6 in his first nine games, 32–8 in his next 40, and now he’s 1–6 in his last seven. So he’s had nearly as many losses in nine- and seven-game cold snaps as he did over the 40 games that make up 71% of his record in Philly.

Now, with that established, there are things, systemically, that owner Jeffrey Lurie has to question in the days to come.

The team’s overall effort level, especially for a playoff game, and with a few exceptions (DeVonta Smith is definitely one), didn’t look great. The age of the defense’s back seven, a question all year, was impossible to mask. The defensive coaching situation—Sirianni swapped coordinators midseason to create a jolt, elevating a coach (Matt Patricia) who was new in the defensive system he was calling, and not knowing where all its answers were—was a mess. Jalen Hurts regressed, and the run game did, too.

Lurie will be right to take a look at all of those issues, to be sure, and get answers from Sirianni on how he plans to fix it. I also know that Lurie has fantastic instincts for this stuff; he walked away from Doug Pederson and Chip Kelly when it felt a little early to do so, and was right in both cases. And, still, the idea of dismissing Sirianni a year after the Eagles were in the Super Bowl, and less than two months after they were hailed as the sport’s model franchise, seems rash.

But maybe that’s just me.

Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce is likely retiring after Monday's NFC wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Kelce was voted the NFL's best center in six of his 13 years. 

• Happy trails to Jason Kelce. I said this about Matthew Slater when the Patriots’ special teams star played what was expected to be his final game last week, and I’ll say it about Kelce, too: In my experience, the Eagles’ center is exactly who you think he is. The perception, in this case, matches the reality, or at least what I know the reality to be.

The 2011 sixth-round pick played for Andy Reid, Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson and Sirianni over his 13 years, and was the anchor for offensive lines that were consistently among the NFL’s best. He made the playoffs seven times, and the Super Bowl twice, and was arguably the greatest player of his era at his, a very unglamorous, position.

Now, I don’t like to call people future Hall of Famers. I don’t have a vote, and the people who do have a hard enough job picking and choosing without people telling them who’s a lock to get in. That said, my bar, if I did have a vote, would be for a player to be among the very best at his position for an extended period of time. Along those lines, Kelce was first-team All-Pro six times. So in six of his 13 years, he was voted the NFL’s best center.

Aside from that, you can ask his teammates and coaches what they thought of him. He’s a top-shelf guy, too, and my guess is we haven’t seen the last of him on the NFL’s stage (I think his podcast might give you a little hint on what’s next).

• I mentioned Sunday night to Matt LaFleur how, through this year, from camp into the regular season and now the playoffs, it seemed to me like everyone in Green Bay was so happy for Jordan Love, first for the opportunity he was finally getting, then for his play.

And I told LaFleur that it sure looked to me like it was because Love’s just a good guy.

The coach took the baton from there.

“That was my biggest takeaway with him when we went through the whole draft process, because I knew there was a chance that we could take one,” LaFleur says. “You come away from that interview with him, and that’s the one thing I told Gutey [GM Brian Gutekunst]—man, he’s a very likable dude. Like, you can’t help but like this guy. I think that’s important from that position to see the love. And just to see how he’s worked to get to where he is now from where he was. He’s done it, man. He’s done it.”

• I heard a lot of folks pushing back on Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as a head coaching candidate after his unit collapsed Sunday against the Packers.

This, I think, says it all about how people overreact to this stuff. Sean McVay was hired from a Washington team that missed the playoffs in 2016. Matt LaFleur was plucked from a 9–7 Titans team for which he ran a middle-of-the-pack offense. Dan Campbell didn’t call plays for the Saints. The jobs they wound up getting were much bigger than that.

So a bad day at the office—and Sunday was that for Quinn and the Dallas Cowboys’ defense—makes the optics of hiring him a little more difficult for the team doing the hiring. But the optics of hiring Bill Belichick in 2000 weren’t great, either, and the Patriots made the move, anyway, and it worked out. I really believe the same will be said for whichever team gives Quinn his second run after he went 43–42 and made a Super Bowl over five-plus years in Atlanta.

Quinn will interview with the Titans and Panthers on Wednesday, the Commanders and Seahawks on Thursday, and the Chargers on Friday—all of those will be, as they have to be by rule, done over Zoom (or whatever video-conference app the teams use).

Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh could accept an NFL head coaching job or return to the Wolverines. 

Jim Harbaugh’s interview with the Los Angeles Chargers is in the books. And I do think people are probably looking at this the wrong way. Yes, money counts, and Harbaugh will make plenty of it. The Chargers are sensitive to the idea that they won’t spend it. So I think in this case, they’ll open the checkbook, and pay for a coach who will give them a real level of relevance, and a drawing card in the crowded entertainment landscape of Southern California.

To me, the bigger question is whether the Chargers will be willing to build around Harbaugh the way the coach sees fit.

To be clear, I’m not saying Harbaugh’s marching in there with demands. But if it costs the Chargers $4 million per year for Harbaugh to bring his defensive coordinator, Jesse Minter, with him from Ann Arbor, will they do it? If he wants to build sports science or the weight programs a certain way, does that work? If he’s more comfortable with a restructured personnel department, is that O.K.? And maybe most of all, after his experience in San Francisco, where is his comfort level with the Spanos family?

These are all questions separate from what shows up on Harbaugh’s W-2, and the answers, I think, will be essential to make this work. One good sign that the Chargers could go with Harbaugh has surfaced in the GM search. The team has interviewed one candidate who has a strong relationship with Harbaugh (Giants assistant GM Brandon Brown) and two more who worked with his brother for years in Baltimore (Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz and Bears assistant GM Ian Cunningham).

Also, for what it’s worth, the word on Harbaugh’s negotiation with Michigan is that, as of right now, there’s still conflict over language that would protect the coach in the case that NCAA sanctions come down—and prevent the school from firing him for cause based on things that have already happened. So if he’s going to return to Ann Arbor, and I think that’s still possible, that part of it still has to be worked out.

• Ditto for Belichick interviewing with the Atlanta Falcons. Bill Parcells used to give guys who came up under him, such as Belichick did, this piece of advice on pursuing head coaching jobs (and I’m paraphrasing here)—the owner is the one thing you can’t change. That was advice Belichick would pass on to his own assistants, too.

It’s also why after Leon Hess’s death that Belichick reneged on a commitment he made to succeed Parcells as Jets coach. It’s also an element from his time in Cleveland that he still looks back on with some disdain. So how Belichick meshed with Arthur Blank on Monday will be a factor, as I see it, in whether the sides wind up coming to an agreement in the coming days.

(Also, it’s worth mentioning that Belichick confidants Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli worked for Blank recently, so the former Patriots coach will have good intel on the organization, with competition committee chair/president Rich McKay also a pivotal figure.)

• This quote, on Tua Tagovailoa’s contract negotiations from Dolphins GM Chris Grier, got my attention: “We’ve stayed in touch with his agent, had good conversations throughout the year. Never talked about money or anything, just good conversations about where he is. ... The goal is to have him here long term, playing at a high level. That’s always the goal. We’ll communicate with him through the offseason.”

That seems relatively unequivocal. And, on balance, Tagovailoa kept progressing.

The bigger question, to me, is: In a world where a guy such as Mayfield is available for $4 million plus incentives, can you afford to spend $50 million per year on a quarterback who’s probably on the fringe of the top 10 at the position? Obviously, that’s something we’ll be debating a lot over the next few months.