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Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris stokes his own fire to win

TAMPA

The first year, there were doubts.

The second year, there were critics.

This year, there are expectations.

Say this much for Raheem Morris. At least the pressures around him are improving.

The Bucs are his team now. No one questions that anymore. Morris is where their fire starts to burn, where their confidence starts to take root, where their ambition begins to grow. This is Raheem, age 34, and by golly, no one else is going to set limits on his team.

He stands in a hallway, talking about football and the season to come, and he does not blink. His team is still young, and his division is still difficult, and the outside expectations are not much. His team had been walloped the night before by the Patriots, and still, Morris dared to talk about shiny trophies and a bright future.

"What I want," Morris said, "is multiple (bleeping) championships."

Three weeks before his third season, and this is the best thing about Morris. He believes, and he has an ability to make his team believe along with him. Last year, when some picked the Bucs to win as few as two games, he talked about 10.

This year, when many expect this team to backslide, he talks about winning the NFC South. Mention having time to grow, having time to build, and Morris shakes his head.

"There isn't any such thing," Morris said. "Did the 1990 Cowboys (7-9) feel they were ready? They were young and hungry, and most people felt they were two, three years away. (Dallas won the Super Bowl two seasons later.) I'm not going to let anyone tell us we're two, three years away.

"Wait two, three years, and people can get hurt, or they can leave. The window is short in this league, man. You have to jump in while you can."

So there it is, a little bold, a little audacious. On the other hand, perhaps that is why Morris seems to have such a complete grip on his team's locker room. Last year, many of us scoffed while Morris believed, and the Bucs improved from three wins to 10.

Impressive. And, Morris says, depressing.

"Last year, you guys were all happy about 10-6," Morris said. "I was disappointed. I wanted to go to the playoffs and really shove it to you guys. I wasn't able to. I wanted to go beat the Packers and go on to win the Super Bowl. I wanted to hold the trophy up, and let you hold it and act like you liked me the whole time."

Morris grins. He is kidding. Sort of. He laughs as he sprinkles in tiny digs at the doubters, but yeah, he remembers which writer picked the Bucs to win two and which picked them to win three last year.

Morris has come so far, perhaps as far as, say, Josh Freeman. Like Freeman, Morris' first season was a lot to ask of him. Like Freeman, his second season was a breakout success. Like Freeman, he needs more success in order to establish himself as one of the league's elite at his job.

"In my mind, I have to prove things every day," Morris said.

That said, Morris is a much, much better coach than he was three seasons ago. He is calmer, and he knows the job better, and he knows which buttons to push on his team. He is no longer a beginner, and he is no longer a surprise. He is a coach.

"The growth he has made has been remarkable," said television analyst John Lynch, who played for Morris when Morris was the Bucs' secondary coach. "That first year, he wasn't ready, and how could he have been?"

Go back three training camps and Morris was a 31-year-old coach who had been an NFL coordinator. The Bucs had just blown up their roster to start over, and the coordinators were all wrong, and the Byron Leftwiches were on this side of the room and the Sabby Piscitellis on that side.

"It doesn't matter how old you are, and it doesn't matter where you are in your career," Morris said. "You have no idea what this job is until you do it. No one is ready."

He won three games that first season, and some fans were calling for another coach. Along the way, Morris seemed to find himself. He took over the defense himself, and the play improved. Never mind that it was not what most head coaches did. It was what made Morris feel involved. He didn't want to be a general on the hill; he wanted to be a staff sergeant.

"I'm a fire guy," Morris said. "I was never ready to be just a manager. I just don't think I'm built not to be in it. When the defense plays bad, I want it to be my fault. When it plays good, it's to their credit. But to me, just managing felt like a reason to sit back and blame other people, and I don't want to do that. I want to jump out of the chopper and be in it."

For Morris, it works. Let other coaches be CEOs. Morris prefers to be hands-on.

"He's not 'the norm,' " defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He doesn't coach 'the norm.' He doesn't care what the media says, how other coaches do it, how it's been done before. He's going to coach the way he thinks he should coach.

"He's going to win a trophy, okay? But he won't be remembered for how many trophies he wins. He's going to be remembered for changing this team. He turned things around."

Still, winning the South? Against Drew Brees and New Orleans? Against Matt Ryan and Atlanta? "That's the only way to assure we make the playoffs," Morris said. "In our heads, we have to win the division."

He has never been a shy man, Morris. Last year, at 4-2, he declared his team was the best in the NFC. Looking back, Morris said, that was a planned speech to help his team believe. "I kept hearing how my team hadn't beaten anyone," he said. "Everyone knew who I was talking to. I was talking to my team."

It seemed to work. "When he said that," McCoy said, "I said, 'I love my coach.' "

A little later, Morris said "stats are for losers."

Prod him and Morris admits he likes some stats. Wins and losses, of course. Defensive touchdowns. Turnover ratio. Third-down conversion percentages. In short, the stats that contribute to winning and losing.

"All those things are relevant," he said. "I wasn't trying to devalue the importance of statistics. I was trying to develop a mind-set."

In the coaching profession, that's a lot of it. Think of it like this: Morris has won 13 games in his first two seasons. Bill Belichick won 13 in his first two, too. Bill Walsh won eight. Chuck Noll won six. Mike Shanahan won eight. Marv Levy won 11.

Still to come? Morris said he wants to win Super Bowls. He compares Freeman to Magic Johnson. He thinks this team is ready to compete with the Saints and Falcons for a division title.

Who wants to tell him he can't?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris stokes his own fire to win 08/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 1:39pm]
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