TAMPA — It began years ago in a cramped room in a decrepit building. Back then, it wasn't a slogan as much as a way to survive.
Mike Tomlin was 30 and the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Raheem Morris was 26 and a glorified intern. Together they dreamed of bigger jobs and better days. They dreamed of hoisting trophies and making names for themselves.
They dreamed it might all happen if they could just figure out a way to race to 10 wins.
"All we ever talked about was getting to the playoffs," Morris said. "Just that race to 10. Who cares where you end up, where you're seeded, what they're saying about you, who you have to play, where you've got to go. None of that matters. If you get in, you've got a chance. And that's how it happened for us in '02.
"Ever since then it's been, 'Hey, man, let's get to 10, and we'll figure the rest of this (stuff) out later.' "
They've come a long way from that office at the old One Buc Place. Tomlin is the head coach in Pittsburgh and has won a Super Bowl there. Morris is the head coach in Tampa Bay and is architect of one of the league's best turnaround stories.
And the race to 10 lives on at the new One Buc Place.
Morris took over in Tampa Bay last season, but he knew better than to talk about playoff possibilities at that point. The Glazers had told him and general manager Mark Dominik not to be afraid to take two steps backward to build for a more solid future.
So Tampa Bay suffered through a 3-13 season in 2009 as Dominik scanned waiver wires and raided practice rosters. Young players were discovered, and a fresh perspective was being developed.
When Morris began training camp five months ago, he instinctively knew the time was right to reintroduce the concept of race to 10 to a new generation of Bucs players.
It is a motto, but it is also a mind-set. A way to break the season down into its simplest terms. Focus on winning each week, and everything else will fall into place. Most of all, make sure a young team does not sell itself short with lesser goals.
A greedy mentality, Morris called it.
"It's not easy when you're coming off a season where you won three games. Nobody believes in you. God forbid if we lost that (season-opening) Cleveland game. It'd be: Here we go again," Morris said. "Every media person, not just locally, had us pegged for two wins. Zero wins. One win. You go look at any of those pro football magazines, my guys all read those things, they knew what people were saying.
"Warren Sapp is on the NFL Network — he loves me more than anybody — and he says it's going to take us three seasons to get to 10 wins. But he was saying that because of what he saw last year. He didn't know Arrelious Benn. He didn't know Mike Williams. He didn't know Gerald McCoy. He didn't know how Josh Freeman looked in training camp.
"He didn't know all of these young guys that have helped us develop this concept and really believe in it."
If a race to 10 seemed like a cruel joke when Morris began talking about it publicly in August, it sounds more like salvation today. At 8-5, the Bucs have three games remaining to get to 10. And no NFC team has missed the playoffs with 10 victories since 1991.
If you assume New Orleans or Atlanta will get the first wild card, then Tampa Bay is currently bunched with the Giants, Eagles, Packers and Bears for the other wild-card spot. Two of those teams will be division winners, and one will win a wild card. The other two will go home.
The Bucs would seem to have the most favorable schedule of the bunch, but they might be the most banged-up team in the NFC. In each of the past three games, the Bucs have seen two starters go down for the season with injuries.
"I don't even know half of my offensive line right now," Morris said. "I struggled calling my defensive line into the game (Sunday). I'm like, 'What's his name, the big guy? Get me Alex. No, no, the other one. Get me Woods.' But it's been fun. And the guys are all buying into the mentality.
"We're going to race to whatever we can get."
And they'll figure the rest of the (stuff) out later.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]