No matter what happens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had a successful season

Kellen Winslow leaps over cornerback Walter Thurmond’s foot for his second touchdown of the game.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Kellen Winslow leaps over cornerback Walter Thurmond’s foot for his second touchdown of the game.

TAMPA

Given the loud and lofty goals of the head coach, perhaps it does not sound like enough. In the future, when this team is ripe, perhaps it will not feel like enough.

For today, however, nine wins look like a winning season.

For now, nine wins look as if the playoffs are still possible.

For the time being, nine wins look, at the very least, like a good start.

The Bucs are winners, for the day, for the season, and for all the shocked looks of everyone who doubted the possibility. In a season, they have tripled their victories. So far, they have shaved seven losses off their record. They have nine wins, and they are still talking about 10. To fully appreciate their accomplishment, you merely have to look into the rearview mirror and remember the 3-13 atrocity of a year ago.

Together, they are the embodiment of their coach — feisty, contrary, energetic, competitive.

Together, they have won nine, and they have stretched their season to the last weekend.

Together, they have put together a season to make the next game — and the next few seasons — intriguing to consider.

Think of it like this: How many times did you think the Bucs would win this season?

Two times, like Peter King at Sports Illustrated? Three?

Four times? Five, like the guys in Vegas?

Six times, like, ahem, some of us. Seven?

Nine? Who saw nine coming? Who thought the quarterback would improve so quickly? Who believed the wide receiver would arrive so polished? Who thought the running back would run like a boulder tumbling down a mountain? Who thought the Bucs could survive their youth, their injuries and their skeptics?

Well, if you're asking, Raheem Morris did.

Turns out, he knew a couple of things the rest of us didn't.

For all of the success of the team's rookies, for all the finds of the front office, this is Morris' achievement. It was Morris who got his team to buy in. It was Morris who talked about "a race to 10" at a time when it sounded like a punch line. It was Morris who got his roving band of 20-somethings to keep plugging along. The plan was his, the resiliency was his, the belief was his.

Nine-dash-six with a game to go? That's his, too.

Oh, go ahead and quibble if you want. Yes, the Bucs beat another bad team. After a while, however, it isn't about who a team beat, it's about how many it won. It isn't the Bucs' fault that the NFC West has wavy stink lines coming off it.

In the years to come, of course, nine won't satisfy anyone. That's the way expectations work. After all, both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden were fired after nine-win seasons.

In a year after a team wins three, however, nine is a nice enough number to validate a coach and his team's improvement. Only once in franchise history (back in 2005, when it jumped from five wins to 11) has Tampa Bay seen this kind of improvement.

Odd, the way things work. This time last year, Bucs fans were yelling for the head of Morris and the typing fingers of anyone who dared to defend him. In those days, no one wanted to talk about the relative strength of the Bucs' schedule. They just wanted to talk about how miserable 13 losses were and then proceed to the next coach.

These days, Morris has grown into the perfect coach for his team. His energy rubs off easily on a team where the average age is that of a Gossip Girl. His unwavering attitude fits well on a team that has been forced to push so many practice squad graduates toward the field. His expectations have prodded his players toward a better season than was expected.

So down deep, Raheem, how many wins did you think were possible?

"Ten," Morris said. "I told you that at the beginning of the season. I know you guys all thought I was crazy when I said it. But you set a goal, you talk about what you want to do and what you can do. We felt that way. It didn't matter what everyone thinks. If we let you guys set our goals, we wouldn't have been very good."

There is a stubbornness to Morris. You can see that in his team, too, along with his personality, his enthusiasm, his belief.

"All of it comes from Raheem," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "His energy is unbelievable, and he's like that every single day. A young team (15 rookies played Sunday) needs that kind of leadership."

Said tight end John Gilmore: "He says it all the time: remain unwavering. And that's what he does. I've never seen that in my nine years in the league. You'll see some coaches get frantic when they have to play guys they don't want to play. Raheem is just looking for that next guy to step in."

Is it good enough for NFL coach of the year consideration? It should be.

"Who else are you going to give it to?" offensive tackle Donald Penn said. "Some guy who was winning before and now he's still winning? That's easy. It's hard to be at the bottom and start all over."

Put it this way: If Morris isn't the coach of year for 2010, he certainly looks like one of the best hires from 2009. Remember Josh McDaniels, who hung around Denver just long enough to trade away all the offense? Looking back, McDaniels was the Ryan Leaf of coaching hires. Jim Mora Jr.? Tom Cable? Eric Mangini? Mike Singletary? Even Rex Ryan seems to be wearing thin in New York.

Here, there is a solid foundation on offense. Here, there is still a playoff pulse.

Here, there are nine wins.

As for Raheem, he wants one more. Of course he does.

Getting into the playoffs

Going into the final week of the regular season, here is how the Bucs make the playoffs, based on the outcome of tonight's game. Hint: Bucs fans should root for the Falcons:

If Saints lose tonight

• Bucs win at Saints AND

• Giants lose at Redskins OR

• Packers lose at home to Bears

If Saints win tonight

• Bucs win at Saints AND

• Giants lose at Redskins AND

• Packers lose at home to Bears

Bucs (9-6) vs. Packers (9-6) vs. Giants (9-6)

The first tiebreaker among three or more teams is head to head, which doesn't apply because the three didn't play. The second is conference record, all of whom are 7-4. The third is common opponents, but the minimum number of four is not reached. The fourth is strength of victory, or winning percentage of the opponents a team beat. At the moment, the Packers lead:

Bucs Packers Giants

Opponent Rec. Opponent Rec. Opponent Rec.

Browns 5-10 Eagles 10-4 Panthers 2-13

Panthers 2-13 Bills 4-11 Bears 11-4

Bengals 4-11 Lions 5-10 Texans 5-10

Rams 7-8 Vikings 5-9 Lions 5-10

Cardinals 5-10 Jets 10-5 Cowboys 5-10

Panthers 2-13 Cowboys 5-10 Seahawks 6-9

49ers 5-10 Vikings 5-9 Jaguars 8-7

Redskins 6-9 49ers 5-10 Redskins 6-9

Seahawks 6-9 Giants 9-6 Vikings 5-9

Total: 42-93 (.311) Total: 58-74 (.439) Total: 53-81 (.396)

No matter what happens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had a successful season 12/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 8:10am]

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