Bucs continue hanging on for a wild ride with Baker Mayfield

TAMPA — Baker Mayfield is playing in a state full of amusement park rides. There’s the sudden acceleration of Universal Studio’s The Incredible Hulk Coaster, the tumble of Disney World’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the death-defying 91-degree drop of Busch Garden’s Iron Gwazi.

But if you want to feel as if your stomach has been lifted into your throat and your equilibrium is shot, just review the past six games under center by Mayfield.

From the 48.3 completion percentage dip in wins over the Panthers and Falcons, which included the thrilling last-second touchdown drive at Atlanta, to the sudden rise of the perfect passer rating at Lambeau Field and rare air performance against Jacksonville, to the cratering experience in the loss to the Saints and touchdown-less win at Carolina, Mayfield has been turning every which way, including upside down.

You know the signs. Shortness of breath. Palpitations.

For Mayfield, the collateral damage of a 5-1 mark during that stretch included bruised ribs and a sprained ankle.

Why has the offense been such a whirling dervish?

“A lot of it starts with me, I’ll be honest,” Mayfield said. “Taking the easy completions, taking the things that are there to put us in position where offensive coordinator Dave (Canales) can call the plays that he wants to. Just overall execution when it comes to little fundamental things that we were doing really well for a couple of weeks in a row ―getting back to that and making sure we’re doing those right, helping our defense out and letting them get a little bit more break on the sideline and go from there.”

Overall, it’s undeniable Mayfield has been worth the cost of admission and a bag of popcorn. Playing for his fourth team in less than a year and a half, he set career marks for passing yards (4,044), touchdowns (28) and completion percentage (64.3).

“Those are all great things ― I’m not going to not acknowledge it, at least,” Mayfield said. “But our goal is much bigger than just winning the division and for me to have a great year. We expected that within this building. We’re in the playoffs now, so it’s singular focus on the Eagles.”

Win or lose Monday night’s Wild-Card Game against Philadelphia, the Bucs have a decision to make with the 28-year-old Mayfield, who signed a one-year, $4 million contract in March. He proved he can lead as a starting quarterback and play winning football.

Do the Bucs lock up the former Heisman Trophy winner, hoping the wild performance swings level off with another year or two in the same system? Or is this just the kind of ride you sign up for with Mayfield?

“I had three offensive coordinators in four years of college,” said Bucs quarterback coach Thad Lewis, who played at Duke. “My best year was my senior year when I had the same offensive system two years in a row. If Baker was in the same system next year, he would get better and better. He’s entering his prime. Most quarterbacks don’t get into their prime until they’re 31, 32 or 33.

“You give that opportunity, that will happen. You’ll see the relationship between the coordinator, the quarterback coach and the quarterback grow.”

Let’s acknowledge the obvious. Mayfield is playing hurt. Not just injured. Lewis indicated a lot of quarterbacks would not have attempted to play in the regular-season finale after the late hit Mayfield took in the ribs the previous week versus the Saints. Against Carolina last Sunday, that may have been a factor in some underthrown deep balls.

Canales said he has to be mindful if Mayfield has any limitations when calling plays on Monday night.

But injuries aside, even while hitting career bests with his passing numbers and leading the Bucs to a third straight division title, there is a chaos to Mayfield’s game that is both thrilling and chilling.

Head coach Todd Bowles says it’s unfair to pin the inconsistencies on offense on Mayfield. “Don’t put it all on him. It’s an offense as a whole. It’s not one guy that’s going to win or lose a game. You have to operate as a unit.”

Canales still believes he can get more performances from Mayfield like the Bucs saw in Green Bay and against Jacksonville.

“I’m still striving and pushing for the highest version of what I have for Baker in my mind and the things that he’s capable of,” Canales said. “Taking us down at the end of the half or the end of a game. So I’m always going to go there. But at the same time, we have to address some little technical details that just need to continue to be polished up this late in the season.”

Canales, who is being considered for a head coaching job in Carolina, was asked how much he would welcome a chance to work with Mayfield in his offense for a second straight season.

“I know whatever our plans are for the future, Baker has been unbelievable,” he said. “For whatever job I might get credit for Baker, that belief in himself, his ability to really bring a team together, to grow and continue to own his growth, I just love that kind of guy, you know? And I love being around him. So I just take every week that we get and I can’t miss today.”

In other words, just enjoy the ride.

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