Very few anticipated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach the heights they did during the 2023 NFL season. When QB Tom Brady announced his second retirement after the Bucs’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 2022 Wild Card round, it triggered a complete reset of the offense. Trying to return back to a division-contending level-of-play while also dealing with several personnel changes was a large task to overcome as Tampa Bay looked ahead to the 2023 season.
Despite all odds, the Bucs won the NFC South for the third consecutive season and reached the NFC Divisional round, where it fell 31-23 to the Detroit Lions. There were several things that went right during Tampa Bay’s transition year. However, there was plenty that could’ve been improved upon. Before we get to what went wrong, we’ll highlight some of the good from the Bucs’ 2023 season.
What went right?
There was loads of uncertainty regarding the talent of QB Baker Mayfield when he signed with the Bucs during free agency. Coming off a sloppy stint with the Carolina Panthers in 2022, Mayfield battled backup QB Kyle Trask throughout the preseason and earned the Bucs’ starting job midway through the preseason. But, it didn’t exclude the former Browns QB from being questioned throughout the majority of the season.
Mayfield showed glimpses of potential throughout a turbulent first half of the season and finally exploded onto the scene in a Week 15 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. The Bucs traveled to Green Bay having strung together victories for the first time since the first two weeks of the season. They were in desperate need of a victory to maintain momentum and remain in playoff contention. Mayfield threw for 381 yards, four touchdowns and a 158.3 passer rating in a 34-20 victory.
Tampa Bay improved to 7-7, returning back to .500 for the first time since Week 7. The Bucs QB helped keep the ball rolling and earned victories in two of the final three games of the season, clinching playoff contention in Week 18 and defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the postseason.
An outstanding rookie class
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office has selected a handful of franchise players in recent draft classes. The front office nailed its picks in the most recent draft class.
Tampa Bay began the draft with the No. 19 overall pick and selected Pitt DT Calijah Kancey. Kancey missed three of the first four games of the season after reaggravating a calf injury from training camp in the first half of the Bucs’ season opener. He made his return in Week 6 and recorded his first career sack in his first complete game of action. Kancey finished the season with four sacks, one pass deflection and 26 tackles.
OLB Yaya Diaby, who the Bucs selected in the third round, proved to be one of the most promising defenders from the 2023 NFL Draft class. Diaby got his first start in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts and never looked back. He finished the year with 1 forced fumble, 7.5 sacks and 38 tackles.
Rutgers CB Christian Izien was picked up by the Bucs as an undrafted free agent. Izien got the opportunity to play plenty of meaningful snaps due to injuries sustained by the Bucs secondary starters. He finished the season with a 66.8 PFF grade and produced 52 tackles and two interceptions.
Nebraska WR Trey Palmer sometimes woke up angry, and when he did, it showed. Palmer put NFL media in a frenzy when he tweeted “I’m pissed off” on the morning of the Bucs’ Wild Card matchup with the Eagles. Palmer went on to catch a 56-yard touchdown. Fans then realized all three of the touchdowns Palmer scored in the regular season were preceded by a tweet saying he woke up angry.
IM PISSED OFF!!🌹
— Trey Palmer (@treythekiid3) January 15, 2024
What went wrong?
An injury-plagued defense
A strong defense has always been a signature of the Bucs throughout history. Tampa Bay had one of the best defenses of the 21st century when it won its first Super Bowl in 2002. It had the eighth-best defense when it won in 2020 and has continuously been in the upper half of the league since its second Super Bowl run.
The Bucs secondary was one of the worst in the entire NFL for the majority of the season. Tampa Bay’s secondary was riddled with injuries through a good portion of the season. Starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean missed five and four games respectively. This gave opportunity to many of the younger secondary players like Izien and CB Zyon McCollum. However, it didn’t necessarily lead to positive results.
Through Week 13, the Bucs had the third-worst defense on third downs. Tampa Bay finished the season ranked outside the top-20 defenses (based on yards) and No. 29 in pass defense. However, the defensive unit showed significant improvement near the backend of the season when a majority of players were healthy.
Mediocre special teams play
It wasn’t a complete disappointment on special teams. Kicker Chase McLaughlin nailed 29 of his 31 field goal attempts, and punter Jake Camarda continued to play well, earning an NFC Special Teams Player of the Month Award in September and taking home a NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Award.
However, the Bucs special teams defense and return team was pretty weak overall. Tampa Bay’s special teams defense surrendered the third-highest punt return yards on average. As for their own punt return unit, the Bucs ranked 26th in punt return average − fourth worst in the NFC.
An inefficient offense
Mayfield was good overall. He threw for 4,044 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, at times he was completely ineffective. In a four-game stretch from Nov. 19 to Dec. 10, Mayfield averaged 198 yards per game and threw for an 81.2 passer rating.
In regards to the Bucs run game, that also wasn’t great. Tampa averaged the fewest amount of rush yards per game (88.8), the fewest yards per carry (3.4), the fourth-fewest rushing touchdowns and the second-fewest first downs earned by runs. RB Rachaad White was a productive bell-cow back, but his efficiency was questionable at times.