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The Bucs' 2008 season ended dismally. Now coach Raheem Morris, with GM Mark dominik's help, will try to set things right.
Published Sep. 15, 2009

Two NFL head coaches walk into a bar. No joke. One of them, the Steelers' Mike Tomlin, had recently won a Super Bowl and was recognizable to the more than a dozen people enjoying a few beers on the 19th hole of a golf course in Hilton Head, S.C., this summer.

"Hey, shut up!" Tomlin yelled over the clinking bottles and conversation. "I'll buy a round for the house if anyone can tell me who this guy is," he said, pointing to his wingman.

Several awkward minutes passed before someone took a stab at it.

"Brian Dawkins?" someone guessed. But it wasn't the former Eagles safety.

"Rashard Mendenhall?"

The guy did appear young enough to be a player, but it wasn't the Steelers running back.

"Hey, shut up," Tomlin yelled again. "Here's a clue. He's one of 32!"

More blank stares. Nobody had a clue. Tomlin howled with laughter.

"He told them, 'It's Raheem Morris,'" said the Buccaneers' new 33-year-old head coach. "And everyone started using their Blackberrys to Google me."

Morris' rise from a defensive backs coach to the youngest head coach in the NFL (in the course of a month) had a lot of people scratching their head.

In fact, Bucs co-chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer had to use their own search engine to find Morris the January day they decided to fire coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen after a dismal end to the 2008 season.

Morris was getting his hair cut when he got a call from Bryan to return to the team's training facility. Having been promoted to defensive coordinator on Christmas Day, he figured the owners wanted to discuss hiring a defensive backs coach.

He was escorted to the Glazers' office by soon-to-be-ousted Allen, who never saw what was brewing.

The Glazers offered Morris the head coaching job. He politely declined.

"I turned it down," Morris said. "I said, 'No, thank you. I have too much respect for my guy (Gruden).' I didn't want to be the downfall of coach Gruden.

"They kind of looked at me and said, 'We understand what you're saying, but we're going to make a change anyway. We like coach Gruden, too. But you're our first choice.' So here I am, the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

Morris left the building without speaking to a soul. He went straight home. He didn't call anybody. He didn't tell his fiancee until the breaking news flashed across SportsCenter.

'Time for change'

Mark Dominik, the team's 38-year-old general manager, took the call from the Glazers that fateful day from his hospital bed after an emergency appendectomy.

"It was the same sort of thing for me," said Dominik, who for seven years had worked alongside Morris.

"You're sitting in the house thinking, 'Wow, this is surreal.' Looking back, I think, obviously, they had to know about our relationship. I think that was probably one thing that attracted them to the whole picture was that me and Raheem always got along when we talked about players."

Why, at such an important crossroad in the franchise's history, did the Bucs ownership group entrust the direction of the club to a first-time head coach and GM?

"Our owners do change," Morris said. "That's what they do. They changed to coach (Tony) Dungy. They changed from coach Gruden. And they'll have a change with me one day. I'm no different.

"It's the same with players. They had a regime that came together - Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber, all those guys. Now it's time for change. ... You've got a young coach, 33 years old. You've got a young general manager. Now let's get our team younger. Let's start to build from the bottom up. Here we go.

"They don't tell you where the pieces fit. You've got to figure it out."

A new direction

The news conference to announce Morris as the head coach occurred before he and Dominik had a chance to sit down and talk about the direction of the franchise.

Not surprisingly, they agreed on nearly every major decision.

"On offense, we want a franchise quarterback," Morris said. "On defense, we've got to get that talent level back to where it was - that youth, that speed, that aggression. That type of play. You've got to make tough calls, and that included Derrick Brooks not being able to play for you because we want to be stronger down the stretch and practice like that. It includes Cato June (and) Warrick Dunn.

"That's why we never called it a youth movement. It was more of a direction, it was more of a plan. How physical can we be? We've got all those draft picks; we've got to play them. Now all the depth that we had just became starters. So now we've got to re-establish depth. That's why we're going to push from the bottom up."

According to Morris, the toughest task since he took over was having to cut Brooks, a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

"I don't even like talking about it right now," Morris said. "You're talking about the guy who put those core beliefs in me. We didn't cut Derrick's spirit. Derrick is still here. We just cut stuff that we couldn't get from Derrick."

That was just the start. The Bucs informed quarterback Jeff Garcia he was no longer in the plans. They re-signed Luke McCown to a two-year, $7.5 million deal and told him he would compete for the starting job. They released Brian Griese and signed free agent Byron Leftwich.

They hired two coordinators, Jeff Jagodzinski to coach the offense and Jim Bates to run the defense. They traded for Kellen Winslow and made him the richest tight end in the game. They lost a bid to the Redskins for Albert Haynesworth and tried to trade for Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. They traded up two spots to draft Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman with the No. 17 overall pick.

They named Leftwich the starter, fired Jagodzinski before he ever coached a regular-season game (giving the job to quarterbacks coach Greg Olson) then traded McCown to the Jaguars.

Young and focused

Dominik pressed flesh with the fans at training camp. Morris called his players out in meetings and in the media.

"The impressive thing has been watching his daily interaction with players, watching those guys after he turns away," Dominik said. "The players embrace him, and I think they're really enjoying playing football for him. I think it's a rare trait to have. I see it and I feel it."

The Bucs are a younger team but have little depth. Almost every national publication picks Tampa Bay to finish last in the NFC South. So does Morris really believe the Bucs can win this season?

"You know, we're young, we're fast, everybody here believes," Morris said. "We all march to the beat of the same drum right now. If you can maintain that, finish and follow through, you've got a chance to win. That's the bottom line.

"This team has some veterans on it. It's got some unproven guys on it. This team has some young rookies and second- and third-year players who haven't gotten their opportunity yet. So now is their time to put up or shut up."

The same can be said for Morris and Dominik. They have waited their turn, and it is their time.

Starting today against the Cowboys, they keep track of the records. Morris said he will keep his pregame ritual of taking one of the later buses and calling his motherthen his fiancee.

Before the Bucs' first preseason game at Tennessee, Morris said, he made the mistake of riding on the first bus to the stadium, because that's what he thought head coaches do.

He drank seven cups of coffee and waited around for four hours.

Enjoy the ride

So what approach should Bucs fans take this season? Enjoy the rebuilding process?

"I don't know if it's 'enjoy the process,'" Dominik said. "Maybe enjoy the product, or the project. I think people saw what we have in the preseason. I think people may think, 'Hey, this team has some running backs. This defense does feel fast. ... Now you have to hope they carry over to the regular season.'

"Why should we have hope? It's the Obama change. But whatever we've done, the big decisions, I think we've all checked the box and said it was the right thing.

"I think our fans are going to feel we have an exciting football team."