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Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected Finish: 4th in NFC South
 
Barber notes a maturity and confidence in his young coach that belies his age.
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This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.

A new coach schooled in Tampa's defensive tradition will try to restore some of that swashbuckling swagger.

The story of Raheem Morris's quick rise from rookie assistant to NFLhead coach begins on a plaque hanging in the lobby of One Buccaneer Place, theBucs' headquarters next to Raymond James Stadium. Engraved on the plaque are thenames of the men who coached Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title following the2002 season. The 13th name from the top is RAHEEM MORRIS, then the defensivequality control coach.

"I don't want to use the word, but he was a peon when he first gothere, a hustler for money," says longtime Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, stiflinga laugh. "He's a proverbial from-the-bottom-floor-to-the-top guy. It's nice tosee him get where he wants to be, even if it's probably a little bit sooner thanhe anticipated." Now Morris, who in January became the league's youngest headcoach, at 32, needs to get quick results from a youthful squad coming off a 9-7season that ended with a four-game losing streak marked by the surprisingmeltdown of a proud defense.

After the season Tampa Bay cut ties with such fixtures as coach Jon Gruden,linebacker Derrick Brooks and running back Warrick Dunn. Quarterback JeffGarcia's free-agent departure left that position either highly competitive orhighly unsettled, depending on your perspective. It will be Morris's job to fitthe new pieces into the lineup and get the Bucs on a new track, and there havebeen indications of how he will go about it. Morris opened training camp bykeeping the players in pads, and in meetings he shows them film of games frompast seasons when Tampa Bay played a tough, physical style. With that, herevealed some of his coaching influences: Gruden, who kept a large library ofmotivating videos, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who as the Bucs' defensivebacks coach and Morris's boss from 2002 through '05, harped on the need for ateam to impose its will on an opponent.

"The only way to be physical is to practice being physical," says Barber."Especially with so many young guys, you have to establish your dominance andthe precedent you're going to hold this team to."

Morris remembers getting blunt -- but helpful -- criticism from Tampa assistanthead coach Rod Marinelli before Morris left the Bucs after the '05 season tobecome defensive coordinator at Kansas State. "Rod sat me down, gave me hard,critical comments, and also told me the things I did best," Morris says. "Thenhe told me, 'You're a little arrogant.' And I was. I'd won a Super Bowl at 26.We talked about core development, about presenting your best self and abouthumbleness."

Morris returned to the Bucs as DBs coach in 2007 and '08, then was promotedto coordinator last Christmas, replacing the long-tenured Monte Kiffin. He wasbumped up again after Gruden was fired three weeks later.

Barber says the coach who left Tampa Bay for Kansas State was not the same asthe man who returned to the Bucs. "You could see him grow into his own," Barbersays of Morris. "All good head coaches have an ability to communicate theirmessage clearly. It's partly his personality. He has that ability, like[Tomlin], to relate to the athlete nowadays. He can do it civilized or he can gothug."

Says safety Sabby Piscitelli, "Every player is different, and he had theability to get his point across to every person. His swagger alone, hisconfidence, rubs off on a lot of people. The energy he gives off makes you wantto play harder for him."

For an organization in transition -- new general manager, new coach, newoffensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator -- playing hard and being physicalare good starting points. Now, if Morris can replicate the quick success ofGruden and Tomlin, each of whom won a Super Bowl ring in his 30s, the lobby atOne Buc Place will need a new plaque, one with Morris's name at thetop.

-- Damon Hack

 

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