Baker Mayfield focused on defeating Eagles in playoffs, not his future with Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) passes against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
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By FRED GOODALL

AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A rejuvenated Baker Mayfield says he’s focused on defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, not the future of a career he’s revived by leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFL playoffs.

The No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft arguably has had his best season as a pro, guiding the resurgent Bucs (9-8) to what six weeks ago seemed an unlikely prospect — a third straight division title and a wild-card matchup Monday night against the reeling defending NFC champion Eagles (11-6).

Since joining Tampa Bay on a one-year, $4 million contract last March, Mayfield has positioned himself for a possible long-term deal with the Bucs or perhaps another club impressed with the way he’s bounced back from less successful stints with Cleveland, Carolina and the Los Angeles Rams.

“It’s meant the world to me just to be able to be in a stable place, to be the best version of myself (and) to (do) what they’ve enabled me to do. The organization, the staff, our locker room — it’s just a special place, so I’ve truly appreciated it,” Mayfield said.

“I hope the guys know that. I try to reflect that with just who I am every day coming to work, bringing energy and passion into it,” the 28-year-old quarterback added. “It’s been great for me, but (we’re) not done yet.”

Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title and three postseason berths from 2020-22 before retiring after an opening-round playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys a year ago.

Mayfield, meanwhile, split time last season between the Panthers and Rams, going a combined 2-8 as a starter.

When he signed with the Bucs and went on to win Brady’s old job in training camp, few people envisioned the team being successful enough to finish with a winning record, much less a franchise-best fourth consecutive playoff berth.

Coach Todd Bowles, however, not only viewed Mayfield as a good fit for a new system being installed by first–year offensive coordinator Dave Canales but for a locker room that’s been transformed from one of the oldest in the NFL to one of the youngest since Brady’s departure.

Star receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin remain, as do defensive standouts Vita Vea, Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr.

Mayfield has prospered because of contributions from younger players such as second-year running back Rachaad White and the development of tight end Cade Otton and rookie defensive starters Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby.

One of the best things the quarterback did to win over teammates was not try to be like Brady.

“I think he’s relatable because he’s different, and I think we have a different team,” Bowles said. “I think we needed to go a different way. It’s worked out for us. The attitude that he brought in, I think would be infectious on a young or an older team. I think that’s just who he is.

“That part is not that big of a deal, but the leadership he’s shown and the way we’ve tried to change the team around has been outstanding. He leads the veterans, as well. He sits with the offense and the defense,” the coach added. “He really brought camaraderie and chemistry together in the offseason, as well as summer training camp, to have these guys on the same page so that when we hit hard times, we wouldn’t panic.”

Although his performance in games has been uneven at times, Mayfield completed 64% of his passes for career bests of 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also cut down of some of the costly mistakes that hindered him in previous stops.

To win the NFC South and land the No. 4 seed in the conference, the Bucs rebounded from a stretch in which they lost six of seven to go 5-1 over the final six weeks.

Mayfield’s start on Monday night against the Eagles, who were on track for the top seed before going 1-5 down the stretch to tumble to No. 5, will be his first in the playoffs since competing with the Browns in 2020.

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