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Tampa Bay Buccaneers hand reins of defense to defensive backs coach Raheem Morris

TAMPA — Jon Gruden's Christmas Eve proposal was accepted.

Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris agreed to become the Bucs' defensive coordinator in 2009.

Morris, 32, was the natural choice to replace legendary assistant Monte Kiffin, who is leaving after 13 seasons to join son Lane at the University of Tennessee.

But Gruden said he wanted to end the speculation about Kiffin's successor while rewarding Morris for his accomplishments in six seasons with the Bucs.

Kiffin, 68, will serve in his usual role as defensive coordinator in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Raiders.

"It was Christmas (Wednesday) night, and I wanted to give him a Christmas present," Gruden said Thursday. "I thought that was a great gift to him, honestly. I've had my coordinators with me seven years — Bill Muir, Rich Bisaccia, Monte Kiffin. And we're going to lose a very key component to our unit.

"I just thought with Raheem, being that it was Christmas Eve, I wanted to give him something to be excited about and reward him for his hard work and efforts, and I wanted our team to know there is no more speculation. … We're going to keep the playbook somewhat the same now."

Morris served as defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 before returning to the Bucs as defensive backs coach a year later. He had joined Tampa Bay's coaching staff as defensive quality control coach in 2002 and was a protege of Mike Tomlin, now coach of the Steelers.

The appointment for Morris, however, won't preclude him from interviewing for NFL head coaching jobs in the offseason. With as many as 10 head coaching vacancies expected and the NFL's Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview a minority candidate, it's likely Morris will be considered to take a top job.

But it was a pre-emptive strike for the Bucs, who knew Morris would be coveted once his contract expired in February.

"I am pretty excited about this," Morris said. "It's a great accomplishment. They gave me the opportunity, they gave me the keys, and that's awesome."

During Morris' first five seasons with the Bucs, the defense finished in the top five each year, including No. 1 rankings in 2002 and 2005. Bucs players welcomed the news of Morris' promotion, particularly defensive backs who have worked with him so closely.

"That's great. He deserves it," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's put in a lot of good work. His time is now. Good for him; it's a perfect opportunity for him. It's almost a natural opportunity. I look forward to working with him. I think everybody does.

"No need to change for change sake. We have a good thing going, and he'll be able to motivate us just as well as Monte ever did."

Gruden said he has been impressed with Morris' energy and exuberance.

"Yeah, I'm a big energy believer," Gruden said. "I like guys with juice. I think you have to be a leader. I think you have to be able to motivate and stimulate these guys, relate to them. Veterans. Young players. He knows the kind of players we're looking for. He knows the routine here in terms of what it takes to play in this system. I've been impressed with him the six or seven years I've been with him. He's had a year of coordinating (in) the Big 12. I think it's the right thing to do, and I think our players will respond to him."

There are bound to be other changes to the coaching staff with the promotion of Morris. Tampa Bay is likely to pursue Lions defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake to take Morris' old position if Detroit fires its coaching staff as expected.

"And you'd be surprised the number of people who wanted to come here," Gruden said. "I've probably been taking too many calls for the last three or four weeks. … Raheem will be the coordinator (in 2009), and hopefully all the people who were interested in coming here can forgive me, but I want to keep my friend with me, a guy I've seen develop here in front of my eyes."

Morris' appointment could have an impact on free agents. Defensive back Phillip Buchanon, whose contract expires at the end of the season, said the possibility of playing for Morris again will factor into his decision.

"Personally, yes, that would be a great big deal to me because me and Coach Raheem, we talk almost every day," Buchanon said.

While players were not surprised by the announcement, some were relieved.

"It made things a lot smoother," safety Tanard Jackson said. "Everyone in this locker room knows Raheem and what he's capable of. The trust has always been there. I'm not going to say it was expected, but guys knew he was going to be the next D-coordinator, and everybody is going to respond well to that."

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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers hand reins of defense to defensive backs coach Raheem Morris 12/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 8:50pm]
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