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Buccaneers Fire Head Coach Raheem Morris

FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
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Raheem Morris at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Raheem Morris at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

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 TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Buccaneers fired Raheem Morris on Monday after his three seasons as Tampa Bay’s head coach.

The team announced the change one day after a 45-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons extended the franchise’s longest losing streak within the same season since 1977 to 10 games.

Morris went 17-31, including a 10-6 mark in 2010, when the Bucs (4-12) narrowly missed the playoffs. His entire staff of assistants was dismissed, too.

“I have has a lot of respect and appreciation for the passion coach Morris gave to our football team, but this change is one we felt was necessary,” general manager Mark Dominik said in a brief statement released by the team, which is owned by the Glazer family.

“We want to thank coach Morris for all his hard work and dedication as head coach, ” team co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Bucs scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference to discuss the change.

The 35-year-old Morris was hired in January 2009, replacing Jon Gruden after Tampa Bay lost the final four games of 2008 to miss the playoffs following a 9-3 start.

This year’s collapse followed a 4-2 start that included wins over NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta, which are both headed to the playoffs.

Morris began his stint as the NFL’s youngest coach with a seven-game losing streak. It ended with a skid that rivaled some of the worst stretches in franchise history, in part because it came only a year after it looked like the Bucs might be headed in the right direction.

With young quarterback Josh Freeman showing great promise in his first full season as a starter, Tampa Bay won 10 games in 2010 to barely miss the playoffs. Morris entered training camp following the NFL lockout, declaring he had a “youngry” team that was confident it could compete with more experienced NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta for the division crown.

The team’s promising start included wins at home over the Falcons and Saints that lent credence to the coach’s assertion that a 48-3 road loss to San Francisco was simply a bad day at the office, not a sign that the Bucs were not nearly as good as their record suggested.

Injuries contributed to the season-ending slide, but so did inconsistent play starting with Freeman who threw for 16 touchdowns vs. 22 interceptions after tossing 25 TD passes and being intercepted just six times in 2010. The Bucs turned the ball over a league-leading 40 times compared to 19 last season.

The defense, once the proud stable of a perennial playoff contender, sank to unheard of lows in Tampa Bay. In addition to surrendering a franchise-record and league-high 494 points, the Bucs lost eight games by double-digit margins and allowed 31 of more seven times during the season-ending skid.

Making matters even worse for Morris, he served as his own defensive coordinator.

Still, last week the coach layed out his argument for keeping his job.

The Bucs had the youngest team in the NFL this season, with 30 players on the 53-man roster in the first, second or third years in the league.

In addition, there are 21 players on the roster, including leading rusher LeGarrette Blount and third-leading receiver Preston Parker, entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.

Among the veterans who didn’t return in 2011 were middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and running back Cadillac Williams, who left via free agency. Rookie Mason Foster stepped into Ruud’s spot and took on play-calling responsibilities, and the loss of Williams left Freeman without a proven third-down back once veteran Earnest Graham was lost for the season to injury.

“We made a collective agreement to go young when we took over this program. That’s something we wanted to do,” Morris said last week. “I believe in my guys. I believe in the system. I believe in the program. I believe in what we do. We want to build this thing young, and want to develop a team that goes out and wins, and wins consistently.”

No one has a better understanding of how far the franchise has dipped than cornerback Ronde Barber, who became the team’s all-time leader in games Sunday in the finale of his 15th season.

At 36, he’s not only the oldest player on the team but the lone holdover from the roster that won the Super Bowl nine years ago. His interception and 92-yard return for a touchdown sealed Tampa Bay’s victory over Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

“It seems like a long time ago. It seems like a lifetime ago, to be honest with you. It’s been a lifetime ago for a number of years. … It almost seems like a different career,” Barber said before the Atlanta game. “Lots changed since then. Our philosophy in the building. Definitely the way we play defense. It’s not the same.”

Barber is a close friend of Morris and conceded that whether the coach’s status could influence whether he decides if he wants to return for a 16th season. Still, the team’s career interceptions leader said he would not approach ownership to make a case for keeping Morris.

“That’s not for me to do, even though if there was one person who could do it, it probably would be me,” Barber said. “But that’s not my job.”

Regardless of who takes over for Morris, a major priority in the coming months will be getting Freeman — the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez — back on track.

While it’s difficult to tell how much not being able to work at team facilities during the NFL lockout affected the growth of Freeman and the team’s other young players, offensive coordinator Greg Olson is among those who feels that the 23-year-old quarterback will benefit having a normal offseason this year.

“I think this particular group of players, they’ll get better, he’ll get better,” Olson said. ‘It will be a great learning opportunity for him to go back and look at the mistakes that were made throughout the season.”

Barber sees hope, too.

“Our youth has got to be our uptick. It just has to,” the cornerback said. “That’s how we’ve chosen to manufacture this football team going forward, and we’ve got to lean on that as a positive.”

 Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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