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Once upon a time, all was well for Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TAMPA

What were you doing eight weeks ago?

You know, just before Halloween. A little less than a Kim Kardashian marriage.

Eight weeks ago, Bucs coach Raheem Morris and his staff had won 16 of their past 24 games, the blistering .667 winning percentage was the fourth best in the NFL during that stretch. They were off to a 4-2 start this season, 2-0 in the NFC South and tied for first in the division with wins over Atlanta and New Orleans.

Eight weeks and seven consecutive losses later, Morris finds himself running out of chances to prove he should be back next season.

Personally, I believe the Glazer family (which owns the Bucs) is rooting for Morris to win the final three games, silence some of the critics and keep its plan on course.

Why? For starters, they like Morris. Bryan Glazer sits next to Morris on the team charter to and from each road game. They're frequently together socially.

But a bigger reason should be obvious: The Bucs aren't looking to pay a big-name, proven coach $5.7 million a year knowing full well they can't hire one without agreeing to spend at least $50 million of salary cap space on veteran free agents.

This much is a given if Morris is fired: The Glazers can't hire another first-time coach. They will need an older man, preferably with a few Super Bowl rings. A Bill Cowher. At the very least, a Jeff Fisher.

For a franchise that has spent the least amount of cash on salaries and signing bonuses from 2004-09, according to NFL Management Council figures, does this sound like the Bucs to you?

Yes, the new labor rules mandate the league as a whole must spend 99 percent of the salary cap in 2011. But there's no minimum requirement for individual teams until 2013. The option on Morris' contract, coincidentally, expires after the 2012 season.

So Morris has coached the youngest team in the league for two straight seasons and, until eight weeks ago, won as many games as nearly any coach in the league over a 24-game stretch. But coaches don't make long-range plans for a franchise. They try to execute them.

When the plan calls for starting mostly rookies, sophomores and other young players, their backups are largely undrafted free agents or claims off the waiver wire.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick in 2010, is lost for the season with a torn right biceps, and he's replaced by Albert Haynesworth? How many game-changing plays has he made?

Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster, who sprained both ankles and was forced to leave the Oct. 23 game against Chicago, misses snaps, and they replace him with Adam Hayward, primarily a special teams maven and the last free agent signed before the season. Fellow linebackers Quincy Black (in his fifth season) hasn't lived up to his contract while Geno Hayes (fourth) was benched.

"Unfortunately, we're not the same team," Morris said. "We are different. But we are into the 'next man up' mentality. I even sold you (reporters) on it because you guys don't realize they're missing, either.

"It's not about missing people. It's about guys stepping up into those roles and using that maturity to get you over the edge. And we've not been able to do that thus far. We've got to do it (tonight). We've got to do it the next three weeks."

Morris is not blameless for the slide. The Bucs have committed the third-most penalties in the NFL (108) and are tied with the Eagles for the most turnovers committed (31).

But eight weeks ago, he was the hot, new face married to the prettiest girl. Even Kris Humphries probably believes the split with Morris is going a little too fast.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@tampabay.com.

Once upon a time, all was well for Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 9:02pm]
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