TAMPA — This is what happens when the grownups stop watching.
The music gets turned up and the kids get rowdy. Hope is unleashed and regret is left behind.
Also, the scoreboard occasionally cooperates.
Yup, two weeks into the season the Bucs are undefeated and incorrigible after beating the Bears 27-17 on Sunday. Just when the rest of the NFL had written them off as leftover characters from Tom Brady’s gloomy, final chapter, the Bucs are back and threatening to win with a fresh, new script.
The quarterback ducks, dodges and scrambles away from 300-pound linemen. The offensive coordinator is dialing up imaginative calls, and the head coach is willing to go all-in on fourth down. The general manager has filled empty locker stalls with rookies, and the veterans are leaning into this screw-you energy.
The oldest team in the league is now among the youngest, and avocado and eggs are no longer considered a quarterback’s elixir.
“The difference in the vibe is huge,” said second-year running back Rachaad White. “Somebody would score last year and everybody was like, ‘Oh, cool,’ But this year, you can see the passion, the fire, just how bad we want it.”
So is this formula sustainable beyond mid-September?
The odds would say no but, then again, the odds also didn’t see the Bucs sitting atop the NFC South along with Atlanta.
It’s true, the Bucs were fortunate that the Vikings stepped in all kinds of messes in last week’s season opener. And they were blessed to catch the Bears at a time when they look like a walking calamity. But even if you believe the Bucs have had a fortunate start to 2023, you must admit this looks like it could be an entertaining group to follow.
That’s what happens when expectations are lowered; you learn to appreciate the little victories.
“Having Tom here was incredible. I love him to death, and I always will. But expectations come with him because he’s the best ever,” left tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “So I think being counted out this offseason was good for us. It was like, ‘Okay, the expectations aren’t here anymore.’ We’re playing teams that are supposed to beat us. And that’s fine. You know, we like it that way. We just get to go out and play football like we’ve been doing our whole lives.”
It’s not just a new chi, of course. The Bucs also are playing smart, aggressive, opportunistic football. They’ve been on the field for eight quarters and have yet to turn the ball over. The defense has gotten eight sacks and three interceptions. The offense has held on to the ball for clock-chewing drives without the infuriating three-and-outs that plagued them last season.
Their best players — Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Antoine Winfield Jr. — have had the kind of moments that you recall months later when a team is still in contention.
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And quarterback Baker Mayfield is providing a spark on offense that hasn’t been around for a while. No one is suggesting that Mayfield is in Brady’s class as an NFL quarterback, but there is something to be said for a passer who can create plays with his mobility.
Just in the first two weeks of the season, Mayfield has lowered his shoulder to pick up tough yards while converting a first down, thrown his body on top of a loose football like it was a hand grenade and side-armed a completion with a lineman clutching his legs. The 28-year-old Mayfield has rushed for 28 yards in two games while the 45-year-old Brady had minus-1 in 17 games last season.
Also, Mayfield has thrown for 490 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 104.4 passer rating through two games.
“This isn’t the same team that won the Super Bowl. It’s not the same team it was in 2021 or 2022. We had to find our own identity and I think that identity lies in this new vibe of a younger team that’s having fun,” said center Robert Hainsey. “You saw the things Baker did. Coverage downfield is really good, protection breaks down and he makes a play out of nothing. That makes a huge difference in a game and gives us a jolt of energy.
“What he can do with the ball at those points makes a huge difference for our offense. That’s something we really didn’t have much of (last year), so it’s one of those different tradeoffs, but he does a great job back there.”
There’s a possibility the kids will lose their way once the competition gets tougher and the stakes get higher.
In fact, there’s a real good chance that will happen Sept. 25 in a Monday night game against Philadelphia.
But, for the moment, youth is being served in Tampa Bay.
So you may want to dance while the party is still going.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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