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Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris has been the motivator

Bucs coach Raheem Morris, right, has relied on enthusiasm to give players, including veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, a jolt of confidence.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2009)

Bucs coach Raheem Morris, right, has relied on enthusiasm to give players, including veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, a jolt of confidence.

They're likely still confounded in Cleveland. In Carolina, the Panthers are perplexed. The Bengals are bewildered; there's shock in St. Louis and astonishment in Arizona. But when it comes to finding someone genuinely surprised by the Bucs' 5-2 start, look no further than coach Raheem Morris. For all the bravado behind declaring his team the "best in the NFC" — part of his mentality-before-reality approach — Morris confided last week that he did not expect the Bucs to be atop the NFC South so quickly.

"I don't think anybody in the building saw us being 5-2," Morris said. "I expected us to be a lot better (than last year). But to be honest, I didn't think we'd be sitting here 5-2. It's just come together a lot faster than we planned, which is great."

The Bucs enter Sunday's game against the 5-2 Falcons at the Georgia Dome with a target painted on their backs by their coach.

What's more, they have no problem with it.

At 34, Morris is the youngest coach in the NFL and has the youngest team in the league. He doesn't need to take the pulse of his team, because he is the heartbeat pumping confidence.

Shortly after the Bucs defeated the Rams on Oct. 24, thanks to the fifth of six fourth-quarter comebacks by quarterback Josh Freeman, Morris stood on the podium in his postgame news conference and put some real teeth into a sound bite.

"We're the best team in the NFC," Morris said. "Yeah, I said it."

When general manager Mark Dominik heard Morris' bold pronouncement, he was fairly certain that the Bucs coach was calculating, not careless.

"If anything, when I first heard it, I thought, 'What's he doing? What's really going on with Raheem?' " Dominik said. "Because there's a reason he's doing it. In my mind, I know he is a good motivator; he finds ways to grab guys' attention."

By all accounts, the players loved it. They responded with a victory at Arizona last week in which they blew a 31-14 lead, trailing in the fourth quarter before Freeman led them to a 38-35 win.

"He's just confident," Freeman said. "He told us he believes in us, and we're going to go out and do everything we can to make that statement true. He knows what he's got, and he's not afraid to let us know how he feels."

Morris' influence didn't envelop the whole organization until six games remaining in the 2009 season when he took over the defensive play calling from fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates.

The Bucs were 1-12 when they posted an upset victory at Seattle then shocked the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints in New Orleans the next week.

"First of all, everybody likes Raheem, and that helps, too," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "At the same time, you have an equal amount of respect for his talent as a coach. I guess offensive guys don't get to see as much, but we see every week what he does in meetings. So when he says something, we can believe it."

The other plus is Morris' age. Cornerback Ronde Barber, at 35, is older than his coach. Chances are, Morris could swap iPods with his players and it might be a while before they notice.

"He's around our age, and he understands a lot of things we're into," fullback Earnest Graham said. "Things we talk about he'll get, and a lot of coaches haven't gotten it. He understands what players our age — and younger — are dealing with, so I think that's a definite advantage."

Defensive end Tim Crowder said, "I've had coaches a lot of guys are afraid to approach. You can knock on his door and it doesn't matter what he's doing because he knows his players are the most important thing."

The Bucs roster consists of 20 undrafted players and nearly as many discards from other teams. Morris played at Hofstra but wasn't offered a chance to compete in the NFL, and he began as a graduate assistant coach there and spent a year under Herm Edwards with the Jets serving a defensive minority internship.

His players see a kid from Irvington, N.J., making it as an NFL head coach and relate to that underdog stature.

"It's partly because I'm kind of a chameleon that way," Morris said. "The younger guys may adapt to me because they see where I'm from. There's other guys that come from different areas — whether you call it the 'hood or rougher places — they see people doing things positive from those places, and they feel they can relate to me that way."

So the Bucs have responded, to the bull and the boasts and the bluster.

"We've got a little trash-talking between players (last) week," Morris said. "It's beautiful; it's creating that atmosphere, that playoff-like mentality.

"We've got two 5-2 teams in the same division. Two young teams, one is a little bit older, more on the cusp of winning right now; here's one starting to bear their fruits a little too early, starting to make everybody angry because they're telling people about it. They've got a controversial coach over here saying he has the best team in the NFC and creating a little environment for our football team. The mentality before reality is starting to kick in."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris has been the motivator 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 6:52pm]
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