TAMPA — We missed Raheem Morris’ anniversary, and for that we must apologize.
Earlier this month was exactly 10 years since the day the Bucs fired Morris as their head coach. So now that he is returning to Tampa Bay this weekend as the defensive coordinator of the Rams, what would be an appropriate gift to celebrate the worst day of his professional life?
How about a reappraisal?
It’s probably long overdue. He is often dismissed as one of a collection of misfit coaches in Tampa Bay, but that recollection is not entirely fair or accurate. He may have been in over his head as a neophyte head coach but there were other, perhaps more deserving, people to point an accusatory finger at.
For instance, an ownership group that was in an austerity phase when it came to chasing quality players. And general manager Mark Dominik, who was later fired after going 28-52 in five years on the job.
Morris, meanwhile, has never lacked for an office door on which to hang his name and now, after all these years, may have positioned himself for a second shot as an NFL head coach.
After his defense completely shut down Kyler Murray and the Cardinals last weekend in the wild-card round, the Vikings reached out to set up an interview with Morris for their head coaching vacancy.
In retrospect, this should not be a surprise. Even though he made mistakes, even though immaturity might have cost him, there was something special about Morris during his time in Tampa Bay. Something unmistakably appealing about a coach who had boundless energy and cheer.
We have seen all kinds of bosses come through One Buc Place but few were as likable as Morris. As a head coach, he was like driving down the highway with the top down and the radio blasting.
“He’s as smart as they come,” said Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who was a backup quarterback for Morris in Tampa Bay in 2009. “Players love to be around him and love to be coached by him, just (because) who he is as a human being. Really good coach, really good guy.”
Morris is the rare coach who has built a reputation on both sides of the ball. He originally made his mark in the NFL on defense, but became an assistant head coach/passing game coordinator in Atlanta before taking over as the interim head coach last season.
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After interviewing for the head coaching job in Atlanta and Jacksonville in the offseason, Morris went back to defense as the coordinator in Los Angeles. There was some grumbling early in the season when the Rams were dealing with turnover in the lineup from 2020, but the Rams have been playing much improved defense and looked outstanding against the Cardinals last week.
“Rah is the best coach I’ve ever had & I’ve had some GREAT ones,” Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey tweeted earlier this week. “He’s taught me so much more this year alone that’s helped improve my game.”
You could make a case that his quick ascension in Tampa Bay was the worst thing that could have happened to his career. Morris was expecting to become the Bucs defensive coordinator in 2009 but instead was offered the head coaching job when the Glazers decided to fire Jon Gruden.
Not only was Morris only 32 at the time of his hiring, but he inherited a team that was completely gutted in a rebuild that had the whiff of a salary dump.
The Bucs went 10-6 in his second season, but the wheels came off midway through 2011 and Morris was fired a day after the season ended.
While NFL head coaching jobs are rare opportunities, I asked Morris this week if he’s ever regretted being offered the chance to take over the Bucs at a time when the franchise was reeling.
“Anything I would say to that question would be an excuse,” Morris said. “My job was to go out there and win football games. We had one year where we won 10 games, but it wasn’t enough to get us in the playoffs. We were able to start the next year 4-2 and then had a disastrous collapse that led to my firing.
“I got what I deserved. And everybody will get what they deserve in this business. The time, the patience? You can’t replicate those kinds of experiences. So I would never, ever say I didn’t love my time in Tampa. Tampa has been considered home for a long time. I love all the people in Tampa, including the ownership.
“That time of my life has certainly created what I’ve been able to become as a man, as a coach, as a father, as everything.”
And now, 10 years later, as a head coaching candidate once again.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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