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Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris believes that his team will improve

There is a bad season behind him. Most of those who predict such things say there is another ahead.

Still, Raheem Morris believes.

He has been criticized, vigorously and viciously, by those who pronounce his name as if it were a swear word. In the NFL, no fan grades a 3-13 season on the curve.

Still, he believes.

The resume has smudges all over it by now. Over the past 18 months, he has lost 13 games, two coordinators, several popular veteran players, his original starting quarterback and a considerable amount of faith from the bleachers. In Tampa Bay, it is an easy thing to doubt Morris.

Still, he believes.

Even now, his confidence is his biggest ally. No one knows how much time Morris has, and it's easy to question how much talent he has. But watch him bound across a practice field on one of those June mornings when sweat waters the grass, and it is obvious the one thing he has not lost is his faith.

"I'm extremely confident," Morris said. "I go to bed every night thinking about championships. Guys who aren't confident don't do that. I go to sleep thinking about turning it around next year and winning a championship. Do we have to tell everyone that? No, we want to go out and show people."

Ah, but when? If the Bucs were not built for 2009, and they weren't, then it is fair to say they aren't built for 2010, either. They are young enough to qualify for Big Ten expansion. The starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, has started only nine games. The backup, Josh Johnson, has started only four. The Bucs are depending heavily on a lot of rookies and second-year players. The offense doesn't run particularly well. The defense was last in the NFL in rushing defense last year.

Look across the roster, and yes, the Bucs still look like a fixer-upper. Look at the experience, and you might conclude that this is a team that won't ripen until 2011 or 2012.

That said, this year feels a little better than last. There is more talent to go with the youth. The offseason program seems less chaotic. The schedule seems less daunting. And yes, Morris seems more prepared to be a head coach.

"The difference in winning and losing in this league is about this much," Morris said, holding his thumb and forefinger about a quarter of an inch apart. "I remember in the past we won four games one year (2006) and we were in the playoffs the next. It wouldn't shock me (if the Bucs were successful)."

Still, it isn't likely. Since the divisions realigned in 2002, there have been 15 teams to win three or fewer games. Three of those were last year. Of the previous 12, teams have averaged only a fraction more than three more victories the following year. Only two teams — Miami in 2008 and New Orleans in 2005 — went from winning three or fewer games to getting double-digit victories the following year. (Miami jumped from one win to 11, New Orleans from three to 10.)

Morris won't be pinned down on what his team can win or what he considers significant improvement. He does say he thinks his team can have a winning record.

Are the Bucs better prepared to win on defense? "I believe so," Morris said.

At quarterback? "I believe so."

On the defensive line? "I definitely believe so."

On the offensive line? "I believe so."

And at head coach? "I believe so," Morris said.

Let's be honest. No matter what you think of Morris, last year was a lot to ask. On an average career growth chart, Morris should have been in his first season as a defensive coordinator. Asking him to be a head coach at 32, asking him to learn on the job with a team that was starting a youth movement, with coordinators determined to change the way the Bucs played football, is hardly a shortcut to the playoffs.

"It was … challenging," Morris said, searching for the right word. "No one wants to say 'youth movement' or 'rebuilding.' You can't put labels like that on your players. We knew there were a lot of unknowns. We had several players who had never started. We had to find out about our roster, who could play and who couldn't. That was premeditated.

"You're right about skipping some steps. I don't want this to sound arrogant, but I thought I was the best defensive back coach in the league. All of my efforts were to get ready to be a defensive coordinator, and when I became one, it was a pool party. It was great. My father figure (Monte Kiffin) left to be with his son, and I was so happy to be in charge of the crown jewel of defenses.

"Then things got all whack. People started interviewing me for head coaching positions. So you have to get ready quick. I'm 32, and you don't want to step on toes until someone has had a chance to do his job. It took some time. But we got better. I guess my gauge as a coach went up."

Also, you might guess, his blood pressure. By the end of the year, the Bucs would win one-third as many games as the previous season, and they would rank among the league's bottom five teams in total offense, total defense, scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense and rushing defense.

In the final six games of the year, however, Morris took over the team's defense. The Bucs played better, and there were hints that he had finally left his imprint on his team. Still, a bit of improvement doesn't offset a bad season. Morris knows that.

"We have one ultimate goal, and that's to win a championship," Morris said. "I'm not going to tell you that if we went 13-3 and lost in the first round that I'd be happy. I would be a liar if I said that."

Yeah, but wouldn't you be happier?

"You guys would be. The town would be. But I don't think my team would be. If you don't win some form of championship, I don't know that you can be truly happy."

At 3-13, however, who is searching for true happiness? At 3-13, a winning season would look pretty good.

"What we're trying to do is build a lasting contender," Morris said. "To do that, you have to have young players play together."

Losing is hard, Morris admits. It beats up a coach. Yes, he would sleep after losses, he admits. But he didn't sleep well.

Meanwhile, the criticism grew. There will never be a three-win coach who isn't criticized. If so, it means that people are watching something else.

"The criticism drives you," Morris said. "You want to prove people wrong. That's life. We all are motivated by people who tell us what we can't do."

And how about the pointed nickname of "Radio"? If you remember the movie, it was the story of how a mentally challenged kid attached himself to a football team.

"I quit worrying about nicknames when I was in grade school," Morris said, grinning.

All of the criticism changes, of course, if the scoreboard does. If the Bucs get better, Morris' approval rating will grow. As of now, it's a fair question to wonder if Morris is indeed a championship coach.

"I'm going to have to prove that," Morris said. "That's not something you say. You're talking about an elite group of coaches. You don't put yourself in that status. Until you win a championship, you're not a championship coach.

"I still only won three games. I'm not going to give myself any credit for that."

Question: Can the Bucs improve this year? Better question: Can they improve enough? Is six games enough? Eight games? Morris wonders, too. And he reminds you how unexpected Michigan's success was in the first year of the Fab Five.

"We have nine draft choices," Morris said. "Maybe we can be the Fab Nine."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris believes that his team will improve 06/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 6, 2010 1:33pm]
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