THE STORY ofRaheem Morris's quick rise from rookie assistant to NFL head coach begins on aplaque hanging in the lobby of One Buccaneer Place, the Bucs' headquarters nextto Raymond James Stadium. Engraved on the plaque are the names of the men whocoached Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title following the 2002 season. The 13thname from the top is RAHEEM MORRIS, then the defensive quality controlcoach.
"I don't wantto use the word, but he was a peon when he first got here, a hustler formoney," says longtime Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, stifling a laugh."He's a proverbial from-the-bottom-floor-to-the-top guy. It's nice to seehim get where he wants to be, even if it's probably a little bit sooner than heanticipated." Now Morris, who in January became the league's youngest headcoach, at 32, needs to get quick results from a youthful squad coming off a9--7 season that ended with a four-game losing streak marked by the surprisingmeltdown of a proud defense.
After the seasonTampa Bay cut ties with such fixtures as coach Jon Gruden, linebacker DerrickBrooks and running back Warrick Dunn. Quarterback Jeff Garcia's free-agentdeparture left that position either highly competitive or highly unsettled,depending on your perspective. It will be Morris's job to fit the new piecesinto the lineup and get the Bucs on a new track, and there have beenindications of how he will go about it. Morris opened training camp by keepingthe players in pads, and in meetings he shows them film of games from pastseasons when Tampa Bay played a tough, physical style. With that, he revealedsome of his coaching influences: Gruden, who kept a large library of motivatingvideos, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who as the Bucs' defensive backs coachand Morris's boss from 2002 through '05, harped on the need for a team toimpose its will on an opponent.
"The only wayto be physical is to practice being physical," says Barber. "Especiallywith so many young guys, you have to establish your dominance and the precedentyou're going to hold this team to."
Morris remembersgetting blunt—but helpful—criticism from Tampa assistant head coach RodMarinelli before Morris left the Bucs after the '05 season to become defensivecoordinator at Kansas State. "Rod sat me down, gave me hard, criticalcomments, and also told me the things I did best," Morris says. "Thenhe told me, 'You're a little arrogant.' And I was. I'd won a Super Bowl at 26.We talked about core development, about presenting your best self and abouthumbleness."
Morris returnedto the Bucs as DBs coach in 2007 and '08, then was promoted to coordinator lastChristmas, replacing the long-tenured Monte Kiffin. He was bumped up againafter Gruden was fired three weeks later.
Barber says thecoach who left Tampa Bay for Kansas State was not the same as the man whoreturned to the Bucs. "You could see him grow into his own," Barbersays of Morris. "All good head coaches have an ability to communicate theirmessage clearly. It's partly his personality. He has that ability, like[Tomlin], to relate to the athlete nowadays. He can do it civilized or he cango thug."
Says safety SabbyPiscitelli, "Every player is different, and he had the ability to get hispoint across to every person. His swagger alone, his confidence, rubs off on alot of people. The energy he gives off makes you want to play harder forhim."
For anorganization in transition—new general manager, new coach, new offensivecoordinator, new defensive coordinator—playing hard and being physical are goodstarting points. Now, if Morris can replicate the quick success of Gruden andTomlin, each of whom won a Super Bowl ring in his 30s, the lobby at One BucPlace will need a new plaque, one with Morris's name at the top.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
0--0 in NFL, first season with Buccaneers
RB Earnest Graham(132 att., 563 yards, 4 TDs; 23 rec., 174 yards) splits carries; Askew had twoTDs on just seven rushing attempts (14 yards).
Aqib TALIB POSCB
Quincy BLACK POSOLB
While Jacksonserves a four-game suspension to start the season, Phillips will move to freesafety and Geno Hayes (five tackles, no sacks) will replace Phillips.
*2007 statisticsTTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 15 > 11 > 14
DEFENSE 19 > 4 > 9
20 at Buffalo
27 N.Y. GIANTS
4 at Washington
11 at Philadelphia
25 vs. New England*
8 GREEN BAY
15 at Miami
22 NEW ORLEANS
29 at Atlanta
6 at Carolina
13 N.Y. JETS
20 at Seattle
27 at New Orleans
* in London
NFL Rank: 5
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .580
Games against playoff teams: 7
The Bucs face only one division foe in the first half of the season—a goodthing as they adjust to a new coaching staff. Another good thing: They avoidpotential cold-weather games by traveling to Buffalo and Philadelphia early.But their nondivisional schedule is one of the toughest in the NFL, and theylost a home game to play the Patriots in London.
Kellen Winslow, Tight end
IN THE off-season the Buccaneers put a lot offaith—and more than $20 million guaranteed—in a big-name tight end who hascompleted only two full seasons out of his five in the league. When healthy,Winslow (picked up in a February trade with Cleveland for two future draftpicks) is a first-rate threat, a quick and dynamic receiver who can stretchdefenses (89 catches in 2006 and 1,106 yards in '07 for the Browns). Butphysical setbacks—a broken leg as a rookie in 2004, a torn ACL suffered in amotorcycle accident before his second season, a staph infection last year—havekept him from meeting the expectations that came with being an All-America atMiami and a No. 6 draft pick. Now, playing for a young team without anestablished quarterback, Winslow's health and productivity carry addedimportance. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski likes to run the ball,but that could work in Winslow's favor. With opposing defenses having torespect the hard running of Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward and Cadillac Williams,plus the threat of Antonio Bryant at wideout, Winslow should get opportunitiesover the deep middle and inside the opponents' 20. "This is a zone-schemedoffense, and we go with the play-action off that," Winslow says. "It isnot a complicated offense. I really like it, and we're excited aboutit."
FERNANDO MEDINA/US PRESSWIRE
¬†IMPRESSED Barber notes a maturity and confidence in his young coach that belieshis age.