Alright, so it’s been about a year since Raheem Morris’ meteoric rise up the Tampa Bay ranks from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator in December of 2008, which was followed about six weeks later by a promotion to head coach, after the Bucs’ 0-4 finish and playoff detour led to the dismissal of Jon Gruden. Since then, Mr. Morris has seen his fair share of criticism, and has made his fair share of tough, oft-criticized decisions. He has been described as radical, after making sweeping changes to the roster, as well as unsociable or even power-hungry, after making more sweeping changes in the coaching ranks. It is fairly safe to say that there are currently more nay-sayers regarding Morris then there are fans of his in the Tampa Bay area. Well, after some thinking and analyzing of his moves, you can count me in the ladder group. I think, for the most part, that Raheem has made mostly right decisions, and I hope that ownership will look past the current 1-11 record and see the same bright future that I see. But, before we can look into that future, perhaps we should take a look back at some of the bigger decisions that Morris faced during his first season as an NFL head coach.
February 25, 2009. For Bucs fans, that is the day that will live in infamy. Whether Morris coaches this team for one year, five years, or twenty years, there will likely never be another decision as unpopular as the one he made on that day, releasing Derrick Brooks, along with Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Cato June. Now, there will never be a bigger fan of Brooks than me, but let me ask this, what have these guys done since that day? Brooks made an effort to catch on with a few teams, but even after injuries left teams like Chicago and New England linebacker starved, no team displayed a big enough interest in Brooks, and Derrick finally accepted his fate, and signed with ESPN. Dunn and Hilliard didn’t even try that hard to catch on with another team. For Galloway, it was a three game, seven catch, stint in New England. Cato June? Well, he was expected to be a prized pickup for the Houston Texans, bolstering their linebacker core into one of the league’s best. So why, pray tell, is he now on the Chicago Bear roster? And why did it take three months in the unemployment line before that Chicago opportunity even opened up? As unpopular as all these moves were at the time Morris made them, is it possible that he knew exactly what he was doing on that fateful February day?
Just two short days later, more news out of Tampa. The Bucs actually traded a 2nd round draft pick to Cleveland for TE Kellen Winslow Jr. They did what? For who? Now, I was a proponent of this move from the second I heard about it. To me, Winslow had proven himself talented enough to be among the top group of tight ends in football. Then in April, Tampa Bay made Winslow the highest paid tight end in football. Ok fine, highest paid may have been overpaying, but not so much when considering the expectations Morris and GM Mark Dominik have of their prized acquisition. It seems to me that some Bucs fans are still a bit spoiled by the Tony Dungy years (which, by the way, ended eight years ago) and thought that due to the troubles surrounding Winslow, it wasn’t worth the effort to bring him into town, or to pay him like the player of his talent level. Well, guess what? You can go down any roster in the NFL right now (Tampa’s included) and find players with much more questionable character issues than those of Winslow. But if all that wasn’t enough, Raheem Morris actually had the nerve to read Winslow the riot act during training camp, expecting to see a leader on the field. How would Winslow react? He (gasp!) listened. Makes we wonder if Romeo Crennel was too afraid to talk to his most talented player, perhaps find out what makes the man tick. Oh, and by the way, despite the carousel of quarterbacks, Winslow has been a top-five tight end in the NFL this year. Chalk another one up for Mr. Morris?
Then came the draft choice of Josh Freeman, after Tampa made another trade to move up in round one to get their man. Morris was immediately blasted for favoring Freeman because of their connections. Remember, Morris spent 2006 as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator before returning for his second stint with the Bucs. Sure, perhaps Tampa needed a QB, but not this QB. Too raw! Is he really the answer? Was he selected too high? So, Morris got his man, Freeman signed early and played through all of training camp, but was still issued a clipboard when the regular season started. After Morris decided to bench Byron Leftwich (a decision I was not on board with by the way) he decided Josh Johnson was the man to lead the Bucs, not Freeman. Meanwhile, Freeman, already garnering a great reputation for his study habits and nearly legendary film sessions, sat and waited his turn. 0-7 rolled along, followed by a bye week. Now was the time Morris felt that Freeman was ready to take this team and lead it. Game one for Freeman included a return to the Bucco Bruce “creamsicle” uniforms as well as a come from behind win over Green Bay. And since then Freeman has played well, but also like a rookie. But no rookie in the NFL this year excites me as much for the future as Freeman does. With a big enough sample to now draw from, Freeman compares favorable to fellow freshmen Stafford in Sanchez. Freeman can boast a better completion percentage, QB rating, and TD per attempt. After the recent troubles against the Panthers, Freeman currently lags in the INT per attempt category, but I believe that number will again skew in his favor before season’s end. So, by all accounts, well, at least by my account, Freeman is exceeding his rookie expectations and building the foundation to an offense that I believe will rank in the league’s top ten next season. Once again, Raheem Morris looks like he made another good decision. Or perhaps, two good decisions, both to draft Freeman, and also to sit him before throwing the rookie to the lions.
Lastly, there’s been the biggest knock against Morris in recent months. The one that claims that he’s either not very personable, or just power hungry. Of course this stems from his decisions to first ask for offensive coordinator’s Jeff Jagodzinski’s keys to the building, and recently adding defensive coordinator Jim Bates to his hit list, demoting Bates after deciding to return the defensive scheme to a Tampa Two. If not for cutting of Brooks, the decision to change defensive schemes might just be the most controversial Morris made during his first off-season as head coach. And through the first three months of the season, it was painful for any proud fan of the Bucs to see what had happened to the defense on the field. But, give Morris credit for realizing that he does not have the player type needed to run the aggressive scheme he had planned, and returning to a system with which the players on the roster are very comfortable. Morris’ decision to demote Bates to adviser while taking the reigns himself was not a power move, it was a move that told me that Morris knew there was a problem, knew there was only one way to have a chance at correcting the problem, and chose the best man to oversee that change. That man was Morris, not Bates. It is Morris who has the experience of coaching in this system, not Bates. The results? So far the Bucs have gone from allowing 29 points and 438 yards per game to allowing 18 points and 303 yards per game. Again, I give Morris the credit for identifying and attempting to correct a problem during the season, instead of letting the string play out and making changes in the off-season. Only question now is, is Morris back on board of the Tampa Two, or does he still have plans to change the defense again?
So, I see the Bucs and Raheem Morris, and I see their 1-11 record, but beyond all that I see the foundation of a great new era in Tampa. For the most part, the offense is already in place, now it’s time for the Morris to follow suit with the defense. Probably no better way to start than with the drafting of Ndamukong Suh, but of course, that’s just one fan’s opinion. Good luck Raheem, and I hope you get the opportunity to see this thing through.
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