With two games left in Week 2 of the 2023 NFL season, a handful of teams have unblemished records. Some of those teams — the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Baltimore Ravens — we might have expected.
However, two of those teams are a surprise: The Atlanta Falcons, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Time will tell if both of these teams are legitimate, or propped up by the NFL scheduling gods. But when it comes to the Buccaneers, there is certainly fertile ground for storytelling.
And it starts with Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield was a football nomad over the past 12 months, moving from Cleveland to Carolina and then Los Angeles, before signing with the Buccaneers to try and fill shoes vacated by Tom Brady. While few looked at the subsequent training camp battle between Mayfield and Kyle Trask with much interest, it was Mayfield who emerged the winner of that heavyweight bout, earning the starting job for Week 1.
Since then, Mayfield and the Buccaneers are 2-0, and Mayfield has completed 69.1% of his throws this season for 490 yards and 3 touchdowns, without throwing an interception. His QBR of 66.4 through two games is tenth in the league — just behind the 66.7 mark posted by Patrick Mahomes — and Mayfield’s Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.91 is fifth-best in the league.
Again, this could be more a story woven by the NFL scheduling gods. Perhaps Mayfield’s early-season success is more a product of the defenses in Chicago and Minnesota, than it is the offense down in Tampa Bay. But spinning through Mayfield’s first two games it seems one factor in particular is working for the Buccaneers’ offense.
Mayfield looks at ease at times in Tampa Bay’s offense, and that was on display both in Week 1 at Minnesota, and in Week 2 against the Bears. Timing, rhythm, and anticipation was not a hallmark of Mayfield’s game coming out of Oklahoma, but the QB we have seen the past two weeks looks like a passer who can count on those traits when it matters.
Late in the first half against Minnesota, the Buccaneers faced a 3rd and 2 near midfield. Tampa Bay sends Chris Godwin in motion from left-to-right before the snap, and cornerback Byron Murphy trails the receiver. Seeing this, and a safety in the middle of the field presnap, Mayfield might expect the Vikings to drop into Cover 1.
But at the snap, Minnesota’s secondary spins into a Tampa 2 look. Mayfield works through the rotation and rips a skinny post to Godwin with perfect timing and anticipation:
As you can see, Mayfield reads this perfectly. After the snap he gets his eyes to the middle of the field, pickup up the rotation and influencing Harrison Smith away from Godwin’s route. Mayfield then rips in the throw, getting the ball out just as Godwin makes his break:
Hard to do it much better than that.
However, Mayfield came close a few plays later, hitting Mike Evans on a deep post route against two-deep coverage to tie the game at ten:
Mayfield’s best — or perhaps biggest — throw in Week 1 came at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. With the Buccaneers holding a three-point lead, they faced a 3rd and 10 at the Minnesota 39-yard line. One more first down would seal the game, but anything else would leave the door open for a Vikings’ miracle.
Another Minnesota Miracle would have to wait for another day:
Mayfield got the Buccaneers closer with a perfect timing-and-rhythm throw on an out route to Godwin along the right sideline, sealing the win and guaranteeing a 1-0 start for the Buccaneers.
Now take this Sunday against the Bears. Tampa Bay got a field goal from McLaughlin on their opening drive of the game, thanks in large part to this third-down conversion from Mayfield to Evans. Again, note the timing on this throw:
The timing here is perfect from the quarterback. Evans runs a deep stop route, and Mayfield is already getting the ball out before Evans has even made his break:
The timing from Mayfield makes this an impossible play to defend. The receiver turns to work back towards the quarterback, and the football is on him, making Evans’s job easier and giving Tampa Bay a fresh set of downs.
Mayfield’s timing was also pristine on this completion to Godwin from later in the first quarter. The Buccaneers dial up a Dagger concept, with rookie Trey Palmer running the post route out of the slot, and Godwin running the dig route. Again, Mayfield is letting this rip as Godwin starts his break, showing command of the offense and perfect timing, rhythm, and anticipation:
But Mayfield’s best read and throw might have come late in the first half. With the game tied at 10-10, the Buccaneers lined up for a 3rd and 3 at the Chicago 43-yard line, with under a minute remaining in the half. They dialed up a spot/stick/wheel concept, with Godwin running the spot route, Deven Thompkins running the stick route, and Palmer running the wheel.
Prior to the snap, the Bears show Mayfield single-high coverage. As the play begins, however, Chicago spins into two high.
While man coverage might have led Mayfield to throw either the spot route or the stick route just to move the chains, with the defense rotating into two high, Mayfield now knows that Palmer is going to find the hole deep on the outside.
That’s where his eyes go, followed by the throw:
The big throw and catch set up a field goal before halftime, giving the Buccaneers a three-point lead heading into the third quarter, where they would pull away.
Prior to the season our James Dator wrote that the NFC South was football’s “most chaotic” division. Two weeks of the NFL season have proven that correct, with the Falcons and Buccaneers undefeated, and the New Orleans Saints in line to join them with a win on Monday night.
But that chaos might make for the perfect timing for Tampa Bay to make a surprising playoff run. Yes, this 2-0 start might be a mirage, and with games against the Eagles and Saints coming up — followed by a very early bye week — we could find this is all a mirage.
Yet, with timing like this from Mayfield, the timing might all add up to a surprising season for the Buccaneers.