The Tampa Bay Buccaneers launched their post-Tom Brady era with a victory that bolsters the team’s belief it can be successful without the seven-time Super Bowl winner.
It wasn’t pretty. However, a 20-17 season-opening win at Minnesota underscored what coach Todd Bowles has been preaching since the day Brady retired last winter: Replacing the winningest player in NFL history is impossible, but there’s still enough talent on a revamped roster to be competitive and win games as the Bucs chase a third consecutive NFC South title.
That includes Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall draft pick of the Cleveland Browns who shrugged off a slow start Sunday to deliver a solid, turnover-free performance in his debut for his fourth team in just over two years.
“The great thing is, when he was having problems, he wasn’t turning it over,” Bowles said, noting Mayfield’s ability to take care of the ball gave a rejuvenated defense a chance to keep the Bucs in the game.
“Baker’s a winner,” Bowles added. “He’s done this before, and the guys love to rally around him.”
Despite being outgained 369 yards to 242, Tampa Bay had three takeaways to undermine a potentially high-scoring day for the Minnesota offense.
Vikings star Justin Jefferson had nine receptions for 150 yards; however, the Bucs kept him out of the end zone.
With Brady leading the way, Tampa Bay won 37 games (including postseason) over the past three years — third-most in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.
The 2020 Bucs won the Super Bowl and followed with the first back-to-back division championships in team history in 2021 and 2022.
Most prognosticators expect the Bucs won’t have that kind of success this year.
“I don’t know what it told them. It told us what we knew all along. We can go in and win the ballgame,” the coach said of beating the Vikings on the road. “If I paid attention to it, I would actually have something to say, but I don’t.”
The defense, which wasn’t as reliable as usual last season, was resilient against the Vikings. In addition to three takeaways, the unit led by linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David limited Minnesota to 41 yards rushing on 17 attempts. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Anthony Nelson had sacks, and undrafted rookie nickel back Christian Izien had a goal-line interception.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Tampa Bay had the worst rushing attack in the NFL last season and wasn’t much better against the Vikings, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry and finishing with 73 yards on 33 attempts. If there was an encouraging aspect to the performance, though, it was that the Bucs never stopped trying to run and did manage to produce a couple of crucial first downs late.
“The run doesn’t always have to be pretty. If you can get 33 runs in and keep the defense off the field, it keeps (the opposing defense) out there longer and keeps them off Baker some,” Bowles said. “The amount of carries was just as important as the yardage, if not more important.”
The opening-game roster included 13 rookies, six of them undrafted free agents. Izien won the nickel back job in training camp and got his first career interception. Sixth-round draft pick Trey Palmer caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield in the third quarter.
Granted it’s early, but a new-look, overhauled offensive line is still struggling to open holes for the running game. Second-year pro Rachaad White, who the Bucs feel is primed for a breakout season, had 17 rushes for 39 yards — 2.3 yards per carry.
Rookie defensive lineman Calijah Kancey left the opener after aggravating a calf injury that sidelined the first-round draft pick most of training camp and the entire preseason. Bowles did not have an update on his status Monday.
10 — Winfield’s sack against the Vikings was the 10th of his career, most by a safety in franchise history. It’s also the most in the NFL by a defensive back since Winfield entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2020.
Dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.