TAMPA — The reminders of the legend are here, and everywhere you turn, they keep popping into view.
The Lombardi Trophy is encased in the lobby of the AdventHealth Training Center. The Super Bowl 55 banner is hung in the Bucs’ indoor practice facility.
But Baker Mayfield and his new teammates are tired of hearing how they can’t win without the greatest quarterback of all time.
“The key pieces that were a huge part of that Super Bowl run, and their success recently, they’re all still here,” Mayfield said. “It’s a different hunger because, unfortunately, the narrative is that Tom’s gone and we suck.”
Mayfield, of course, is talking about Tom Brady, the GOAT on the boat in the Hillsborough River during that watery Super Bowl parade who still casts a long shadow over this franchise.
In many ways, Mayfield is the anti-hero. Whereas Brady was the 199th draft pick by the Patriots in 2000 who played 20 seasons and won six Super Bowls there and another in Tampa Bay, Mayfield was the No. 1 overall choice of the Browns in 2018 who also played for Panthers, Rams and Bucs — all since July of 2022.
But Mayfield is as comfortable being counted out as he is being counted on.
NBC’s Peter King recently listed the Bucs at No. 31 in his NFL power rankings. Sports Illustrated predicted they would go 2-15.
“That’s fortunate for us, because that makes our guys have a different type of motivation they might have not had recently," Mayfield said. “It puts them into a different level of competition and trying to prove that our locker room is more than capable of keeping that success."
Mayfield is looking to prove something as well.
In fact, he’s nothing if not ready to take on the biggest challenge he can find.
College legacy cemented at OU
You don’t walk on and win the job as the starting quarterback at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, lead the Sooners to the national semifinal and win the Heisman Trophy while becoming the No. 1 overall pick by playing it safe.
Despite winning a state championship for Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, Mayfield had only a handful of Division I-A offers to play football — from Florida Atlantic, Washington State, Army, New Mexico and Rice, where he also could play baseball.
A self-described “late bloomer," Mayfield felt he had earned his chance to be a scholarship player.
That’s when his father, James, reminded him that even at just a half-inch or so over 6 feet, his son had never been afraid of a challenge. Why not walk on at Texas Tech, where he had dreamed of playing?
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“At that time, being 17 years old, I felt like I deserved a scholarship after going 25-2 and winning a state championship at a premier program,” Mayfield said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m competitive. I know I can play at the next level. But he hit me at a tough spot. I was not happy, but I accepted the fact that I needed to walk on, and financially at the time, walking on in-state was the best decision. ...
“I got there in July and won the job the second week of training camp and started the first few games."
In fact, in his first game, Mayfield passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns against SMU. A knee injury caused him to surrender the job to Davis Webb that year, but Mayfield passed for 2,315 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions to be named the Big 12′s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.
Reports vary, but Mayfield didn’t think it was “fair” to have to compete for his job at Texas Tech and decided to walk on at Oklahoma, even though it required him to sit out a year.
“I grew up an Oklahoma fan, so that transition was a lot easier,” Mayfield said. “I had applied out of high school and was accepted, so that was why I was able to leave in December and enroll in the spring. But they had blocked my transfer, so I was just living in the dorms, doing normal class.
“Just another thing where I made the most of my opportunity, working out at the rec center, played intramural sports. Enjoyed it until I got the NCAA notification that I could participate in team meetings if I was on the team and just showed up to the team dinner and introduced myself to Bob Stoops and told him I’d love an opportunity to play.”
Mayfield won the job, passing for 3,700 yards with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2015. He led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals, where they lost 37-17 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl; he finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The next year he beat Auburn 35-19 in the Sugar Bowl. Finally, 2017 was full of trials and triumph. He faced criticism for planting the Sooners’ flag in the “O” of Ohio State and issued a public apology for grabbing his crotch against Kansas and suggesting their fans go “cheer on basketball.”
After winning his third straight Big 12 championship, and his first Heisman, the Sooners lost 54-48 to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, which served as a CFP semifinal.
The New York Jets owned the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft and then-coach Todd Bowles hit it off instantly with Mayfield.
“The other guys may have had better arms but he was the only one who had the demeanor to fit New York City and you’ve got to be a different guy to fit New York City,” Bowles said. “Sometimes the intangibles of a guy gets overlooked. The moxie. The gathering of the guys. They were going to follow him.”
Here we go again
Unfortunately for Bowles, the Browns felt the same way about Mayfield and took him No. 1 overall. But if you want to destroy a young quarterback, follow this template:
The Browns had gone 1-31 under Hue Jackson when Mayfield arrived. Then halfway through his rookie year, Cleveland fired Jackson and made Gregg Williams the interim head coach. He was followed by Freddie Kitchens for one season and Kevin Stefanski.
Despite all that, Mayfield played like a top-10 quarterback, leading the Browns to an 11-5 record and wild-card playoff win over the Steelers in his third season, passing for 4,030 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions (counting playoffs).
Then in Week 2 the following season, receiver Anthony Schwartz didn’t finish a route and Mayfield injured his left non-throwing shoulder, tearing his labrum making a tackle after the interception.
Mayfield probably should not have continued playing, but he felt he could do the best job, even while hurt.
“There’s always the what-ifs,” Mayfield said. “I’m a competitive guy. I want to be out there. If it came down to it to where I thought that somebody else was able to do it better than me at that physical condition? I’m a team guy first. I would have let it happen. But I felt I was able to go well enough.”
Mayfield went 6-8 as a starter while throwing 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. By the next year, the Browns were plotting to trade three first-round picks, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-rounder for controversial Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Mayfield was left to twist in the wind before being traded to Carolina in July for a conditional fifth-round choice.
“You know, mentally, as soon as Cleveland decided to go with Deshaun Watson, I knew that I wasn’t going to be there,” Mayfield said. “It was just a matter of time. So I had already moved on at a certain point. You know, at the time wasn’t (I) happy with it, but you just had to accept it, move on to the next thing.”
Another fresh start
Once again, Mayfield had to compete for the job and he beat out Sam Darnold, going 1-5 until suffering a high ankle sprain. At the same time, the Panthers not only fired head coach Matt Rhule, they traded running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers and receiver Robby Anderson to the Cardinals.
“Everybody in the league knew that (Carolina) didn’t have options,” Mayfield said. “They weren’t going to trade me. They knew they were just going to have to release me. So that was the game that, unfortunately, we had to play. Being out in limbo the whole offseason, and then showing up straight to training camp and meeting all my new teammates in Carolina.
“It was once again a fast track. Trying to learn the offense. But the thing I’d say about Carolina, on the outside, it wasn’t successful. Absolutely not. There was a lot of drama going on. But the locker room, the guys were great. That’s what made it worth it.”
With five weeks remaining in the season, the Panthers waived Mayfield and he was claimed by the Rams, who had a Thursday night game against the Raiders.
Matthew Stafford was injured. The Rams were circling the drain. Mayfield had two days to prepare, the shortest a quarterback has spent with a team before playing since 1995.
“That’s maybe my favorite memory of all time,” Mayfield said. “I mean, how quickly it happened. The waiver wire went through at 4 o’clock Eastern (time). I got to L.A. at 9:30 p.m. I got to the facility. Studied for like an hour and a half with (passing game coordinator) Zac Robinson, (quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator) Liam Coen, and (head coach) Sean McVay and we just sat there talking about it and they were like, ‘You’re on the Eastern Coast time right now. You need to go to bed.’ So I went back and then showed up the next morning and we had a walk through.”
McVay gave Mayfield a few protections and had a wristband designed for him.
“Sean didn’t call one damn play of it," Mayfield said. “We laugh about it now. It was a lot of learning on the fly and just putting the pieces together."
Mayfield didn’t just win the game, he drove the Rams 98 yards in the final 1:45 with no timeouts, throwing the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left.
“I felt like I was studying for the SATs, cramming for a test last minute. ... (But) everything aligned. Sean said that. ‘Hey, this is a five-game stretch. We’re not in a good place, this is something new for you, but let’s just make the most of it.’ That was an unbelievable opportunity that I was able to do.”
Of course, by his side for every step was wife Emily. She was more than the unwitting co-star of Mayfield’s Progressive Insurance commercials.
Emily said she’s never seen Mayfield more fired up than he is right now with the Bucs. Likewise, there’s no way Baker would have made it this far without her.
“To say she’s meant everything is an understatement,” he said. “She’s four years older than me. She was already living in Los Angeles, had a stable job. Her siblings were out there. I came in and uprooted her whole life to now this unknown situation. We don’t know where we’re going to be. I mean, she’s just been a trouper the whole time but completely supportive. And just, you know, obviously my ride or die, but just rolling with every punch and she’s been supportive the whole way. I would not have been able to do anything the past five years without her.”
Bucs history is full of quarterback cameos, from Steve Young to Byron Leftwich. Mayfield is hoping to make Tampa Bay his home, which means he has to win. He has to prove everyone wrong one more time.
So count him out. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can say with a smile on my face … yeah, please do,” Mayfield said.
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