Commentary

Bucs' Morris is a student of the game

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Chris Mortensen | ESPN

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris may look like a college student, but he's not a slacker. He's been taking notes.

Peek in his desk drawer and you'll find some composition notebooks with plenty of material from teachers such as Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin, Mike Tomlin, Herm Edwards, Jon Gruden and, yes, Rod Marinelli.

"I use a lot of 'Rod-isms,' like we like to call 'em -- 'see a little, see a lot,'" said Morris. "Talk about Coach Dungy, 'no excuses.' Mike Tomlin, 'mentality before reality'; Herm Edwards, 'respect for the [NFL] shield.' Talk Coach Gruden, 'you're either getting better or you're getting worse.'"

He will not apologize for using Marinelli as a role model, despite Marinelli's record as head coach in Detroit, punctuated by an 0-16 season in 2008. Morris was a fellow assistant with the Bucs when Marinelli served as the assistant head coach/defensive line.

"You're talking about one of best coaches ever in this great game we call football and anyone who has been around him will say the same thing," Morris said. "He's not to be judged by that 0-16, but by how he handled it. Great people and great men come out of situations whether you're riding high or you're riding low. If you know Rod Marinelli at all, he's always even-keeled. He never rides the emotional roller coaster."

Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber is the last remaining dinosaur with the Bucs after they purged the roster to make room for younger players. Whereas linebacker Derrick Brooks did not survive, the Bucs kept Barber, who is 34 and two years older than his head coach. He has been around all the coaches that Morris cited as mentors but does not see his new coach as a clone.

"He's definitely Raheem Morris," said Barber. "You can see some of those other guys in him, but he has his own mannerisms and there's a way about him that's a lot different from any of those guys. Obviously, he's most similar to [Tomlin], they were so close all those years before Mike left for Minnesota [as defensive coordinator]."

Barber added that Morris' youthful looks and energetic approach may leave the impression "that he doesn't have the potential to do it, but really, he's shown he's a great players' coach. I know it's a cliché, but he really can relate to a lot of players on this football team because we are a young team. He's not overly aggressive, he's not real passive. It's just the right mix. The youth thing, he's taken advantage of it by making us really feel like we're all in this together and I think the guys have bought in."

The Bucs better buy in because if a front-office, coaching and roster makeover isn't scary enough, just look at the team's opening seven games. Tampa plays the entire NFC East in the first five games with a Buffalo road game in Week 2. Then the Bucs play their first NFC South game against defending division champion Carolina before they have a "home" game against the New England Patriots -- in London.

Morris' attitude about this most intimidating schedule? He smiles.

"You want to be best, you want to play the best," said Morris. "If you want to find out if you can win in December and January and whether you can play with the best teams or not, you might as well find out right off the bat."

That is probably in one of those notebooks within arm's reach at his desk.

Here's more of what I learned and observed at Buccaneers training camp, the 19th stop on my training camp bus tour:

  • Morris will name either Byron Leftwich or Luke McCown as the team's starting quarterback after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. Leftwich appears to have the inside track, but Morris didn't rule out McCown. Morris on the quarterbacks: "With Leftwich, you talk about a guy who's won some games in this league, has a swagger, has some leadership skills and gets the team concept. He's been in the fire and he's not afraid to stare down the barrel and throw a strike down the field. You're talking about two different guys, both hungry, one trying to get back and one trying to finally get it."

  • As for first-round pick Josh Freeman, the 17th overall player selected in the April draft, Morris said the team is committed to him even though he won't open the season as the starter. "Right now we look as Josh as a franchise guy and when the time is right, we're going to ride him, hopefully for at least 10 years," said Morris, steadfast that the team's grueling opening schedule is not a factor in the decision to go with Leftwich or McCown.

  • Leftwich said he won't be too amped up against the Jaguars, who dumped their former first-round draft pick in favor of David Garrard. "If this was a year ago, it would be a different story, but there was something about my year with the Steelers that really settled me down. No bitterness. I'm just going out and play football," he said.

  • After playing in the "Tampa 2" defense his entire career under Kiffin, Barber is pleasantly surprised by playing a different scheme under another proven, 60-year-old-plus defensive coordinator, Jim Bates. "Traditionally, people talk about me not quite fitting in, but I'm enjoying the change, learning something new about defense and Jim's great," said Barber. "We're doing some similar things but the system is different, along the line of scrimmage and with the corners -- we're a lot more aggressive. We have a lot of speed and great athletes and if we buy into it, we have a chance to be better than what people may expect."

  • Bates' defense opens the season without one of its top players, safety Tanard Jackson, who was suspended earlier this week by the NFL for the first four games of the season for violation of the league's substance abuse policy. GM Mark Dominik said the team was working with the league on cornerback Aqib Talib's misdemeanor charges early Thursday morning. At the very least, Dominik suggested Talib may be required to undergo counseling.

  • Dominik and the Bucs are very excited about their running game and that includes Cadillac Williams, who he believes has made a somewhat "miraculous" comeback from significant knee surgeries in the previous two seasons. The combination of Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham and Williams could allow the Bucs to use a three-back system much like Ward experienced with the Giants before he signed on as a free agent.

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.