NFL Nation: Jim Bates

New-age Bucs facing former coach

August, 29, 2012
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It’s a meaningless final preseason game, but Wednesday night’s exhibition between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins at least has one good storyline.

The Bucs (or at least what’s left of last year’s team) will face their former head coach, Raheem Morris, who now is the defensive backs coach for the Redskins.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergRaheem Morris will coach against his former team Wednesday night.
A lot of things have changed since the Bucs lost their final 10 games of last season and hired Greg Schiano, but it doesn’t sound like Morris has changed all that much. Check out Rick Stroud’s story in which Morris does what he does best ... and worst. He talks a lot, perhaps way too much.

“We were getting fitted for coach of the year rings [in 2010],’’ Morris said. “A year later, we weren’t disciplined enough.’’

That’s vintage Morris. I don’t know too many other head coaches that would be bragging about finishing second in the voting for coach of the year after a 2010 season in which a young team obviously caught some lucky breaks and went 10-6, but didn’t make the playoffs. Morris mentioned the runner-up finish in that meaningless election several times while he still was in Tampa Bay and, even then, it was obvious that he was trying to make it sound like he had arrived before he truly had.

Back in his Tampa Bay days, Morris liked to talk about how much he liked his youthful team and its desire, coining the word “Youngry." Now, he’s coming across differently, admitting that he called Mark Dominik after the Bucs went on a spending spree in free agency in March.

“I gave him some nice choice words,’’ Morris said, adding that Dominik treated the call as playful banter.

That’s nice, but Morris is at least giving the impression that he’s a little bitter the Bucs didn’t spend big money on free agents while he was there, even though he frequently talked about the importance of building through the draft. The part about not signing free agents was true in his final year, but not the entire time. The Bucs did sign some free agents earlier in his tenure and they didn’t work out (see Derrick Ward). Maybe the fact guys like Ward didn’t work out was Morris’ fault, maybe it was Dominik’s fault or maybe it was a combination of the two. But there was plenty of evidence Morris didn’t always do his homework. Just think back to the fact that original offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski didn’t make it through his first training camp and initial defensive coordinator Jim Bates didn’t make it through the first season.

Look, I like Morris. He’s a genuinely nice guy and I think he will be a good head coach someday. He has plenty of positive qualities. But he needs to be a little more introspective on his time in Tampa Bay and realize some of the mistakes he made.

The fact is, the Bucs made Morris a head coach long before he was ready. He’s 36 now and he’s in a spot where he can do what he does best -- coach defensive backs.

In the process, maybe Morris can also grow by looking back and making some small changes, like focusing more on details and learning to tone down the bravado.

If he does that, Morris can then take the next logical step and become a defensive coordinator somewhere. Do that for a few years, have some success, stay humble about that success and he might get another chance as a head coach.

Mature a little in the process and he might be ready for success the second time around.

Bucs' coaching puzzle coming together

February, 9, 2012
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Although there’s been speculation from the day Greg Schiano became the head coach in Tampa Bay that Butch Davis would be joining his staff, that still hasn’t happened.

Davis
But it now appears imminent. Alex Marvez reports that Davis has been hired as a senior defensive assistant. Local reports say the deal hasn’t been completed, but appears likely.

If a deal with Davis is finalized, it likely would silence some of the criticism Schiano has taken because most of his reported hires so far have been his former Rutgers assistants — of whom few have any NFL experience.

But Davis has been a head coach in the NFL and on the college level. He also was defensive coordinator for Dallas during the Jimmy Johnson days. Davis was also the University of Miami head coach when Schiano was Hurricanes defensive coordinator and the two have remained close.

Although initial speculation was that Davis would be the defensive coordinator, it appears that won’t be the case. His role might be more as a liason between Schiano and a new defensive coordinator. The Bucs made a similar move when they hired Jimmy Raye II as a senior offensive assistant.

Neither coordinator is in place and one or both could come from the college ranks. But the presence of Davis and Raye, who has a long history as an NFL assistant, would bring a lot of NFL experience and respect to the staff of Schiano, who never has been an NFL head coach.

So what if Schiano’s bringing in a lot of Rutgers assistants? They’re guys he knows and with whom he has enjoyed success. Throw in the NFL experience of Davis and Raye and this could turn out to be a pretty good staff.

It almost certainly would be better than the staff of former coach Raheem Morris. After firing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and defensive coordinator Jim Bates early in his tenure, Morris’ staff was viewed as largely inexperienced and ineffective in league circles.

When Bates was fired, Morris, who had not officially been a defensive coordinator on the NFL level (he was selected to replace Monte Kiffin, but was elevated to head coach before he ever called a play as coordinator), took over as the defensive coordinator. When Jagodzinski was fired, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was quickly promoted and the trickle-down effect took a toll on the rest of the offensive staff.

If Schiano, who has history as a college defensive coordinator, surrounds himself with Davis and Raye and coordinators, the Bucs suddenly will be a lot stronger at the top of their coaching staff.

Bucs getting blocked on assistants

February, 7, 2012
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It certainly appears as though new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is having a challenging time putting together a staff of assistants.

The latest example of this comes from this report that says the Green Bay Packers denied permission for the Bucs to speak to tight ends coach Ben McAdoo about becoming offensive coordinator.

McAdoo is at least the second offensive coordinator candidate the Bucs have been blocked from interviewing. The Arizona Cardinals previously denied permission for offensive assistant John McNulty, a former Schiano assistant at Rutgers, to interview for the job.

It also was reported Monday that University of Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn turned down a position with the Bucs, presumably as the defensive line coach.

The Bucs have not made any official announcements about any hirings of assistants. The only assistant known to have accepted a position is wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck, another former Rutgers assistant.

The Bucs appear to be in line to add several other Rutgers assistants, but nothing definite has happened yet. There also has been speculation from the moment Schiano was hired that he’d be joined by former NFL and college head coach Butch Davis as defensive coordinator, but nothing has been announced on that move.

Although Tampa Bay was extremely thorough in its search for a head coach -- the process took more than three weeks -- it appears the late start has put Schiano at a disadvantage when it comes to filling out a staff. Most assistant jobs have been filled across the league, and teams are trying to hold onto what they have. Quinn turned down a chance to get back into the NFL, and Rutgers reportedly is doing its best to keep as many assistant coaches as possible.

One of the knocks on former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris was that he lacked a strong stable of assistants, especially after firing experienced coordinators Jim Bates and Jeff Jagodzinski during his first season. It’s starting to look like the late start might make it tough for Schiano to assemble a quality staff.

Butch Davis a fit in Tampa Bay?

January, 30, 2012
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Since the hiring of Greg Schiano as Tampa Bay’s coach Friday, there has been speculation that Butch Davis could join his coaching staff. It’s completely logical because Schiano, who was an NFL assistant for only three seasons, needs some strong NFL experience on his staff.

Predecessor Raheem Morris took lots of criticism (most of it justified) for not having a very experienced staff, especially after firing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the 2009 training camp ended and defensive coordinator Jim Bates midway through that same season.

Davis was a head coach for the Cleveland Browns. He also was a college head coach at Miami and North Carolina. Davis and Schiano have history together. Schiano was defensive coordinator at Miami when Davis was there.

Now, the tables could be turned. The reports are unclear if Davis is being considered as a defensive coordinator or assistant head coach.

I say, Schiano should go after him hard and let Davis fill both roles. Davis knows how to run a defense and Tampa Bay’s needs lots of work. Davis also could be a good asset as an assistant head coach because he knows how the NFL works and, at least initially, Schiano’s going to need some help in that area.
There’s no doubt the Denver Broncos should be disappointed that they are losing defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

When the Broncos hired Allen last year, they knew he’d likely get some head-coaching opportunities, but they thought he’d stick around Denver for two or three years. Yet Allen was plucked by Oakland as its head coach after one season as head coach. The Broncos’ defense improved immensely under Allen’s guidance.

Now Denver's defense will have its seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons. Think about that. Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams have both worn a Denver uniform since 2004. They will now have their seventh coach in seven years.

The transition this year will not nearly be as difficult because Denver head coach John Fox is defensive-minded. While Allen did a good job, Fox deserves a lot of credit for Denver’s improvement and will ensure the Broncos don’t take a step backward on defense.

I think the two names we have to look at as a candidate to replace Allen are former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio and Denver linebacker coach Richard Smith. Del Rio was a coordinator for Fox in Carolina and Smith is extremely experienced as well.

The Broncos will miss Allen, but I think they are in better shape on defense than it may appear.

Here is a look at the Broncos’ defensive coordinators in the past six years: Larry Coyer (2006, fired), Jim Bates (2007, fired), Bob Slowik (2008, fired), Mike Nolan (2009, departed in mutual decision), Don Martindale (2010, fired), Allen (2011, hired by Oakland).

Bucs' search approaching crunch time

January, 23, 2012
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I’ve been saying all along the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been wise to move slowly in their coaching search.

They promised an exhaustive search and they’re coming through on that. It appeared to be ending Sunday night when the Bucs reportedly were working out a contract to bring in Oregon coach Chip Kelly. But that changed Monday morning when the news broke that Kelly had decided to pull out and stay at Oregon.

The Bucs have interviewed at least eight other known candidates and only one of them, Joe Philbin who wound up with the Miami job, is off the market. It’s possible the Bucs could want to interview some more candidates that have been tied up with the postseason and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell could be one of them.

But the Bucs are approaching a point where continuing to be exhaustive can be counterproductive. The week of Senior Bowl practices starts Monday in Mobile, Ala. It’s not imperative the Bucs have their new coach there to see the college prospects. The scouting department can handle that.

However, the Bucs are getting close to running the risk of putting their new coach at a big disadvantage. For those who haven’t been to the Senior Bowl, let me describe it a bit.

Sure, it’s about the players. This is the first real step in beginning to determine where they’ll be ranked on draft boards. But the Senior Bowl is more than that. It’s also a convention for coaches and there’s as much networking going on there as there is at a job fair.

When John Fox was about to get the Carolina job back in 2002, I watched him on the sidelines during Senior Bowl practices. Coach after coach walked up to him and handed him their business card or a piece of paper with their name on it.

Later in the week, I sat with Fox and his agent in the Mobile airport, waiting for a flight to Charlotte. As we talked, Fox pulled out the stack of cards, he had received. I’m guessing the total amount of cards was somewhere around 200. A day or two later, Fox was hired and there’s no doubt he called some of the numbers on those cards as he filled out his staff.

Cards are being handed out in Mobile right now as teams with new coaches try to fill their staffs and other teams try to patch holes on existing staffs and the supply of coaches without jobs is going to dwindle very soon.

The Bucs, Raiders and Colts currently still have vacancies for head coaches. If the Bucs don’t hire a coach soon, he’s not going to have a deep pool of candidates to hire as assistants. Putting together a strong staff is one of the most important things a coach does.

Former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hired an initial staff that included Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator and Jim Bates as defensive coordinator. Jagodzinski was fired before the end of Morris' first preseason and Bates was gone by the middle of that season. One of the knocks on Morris in league circles was he didn't have a very good group of assistant coaches.

The Bucs have pledged to learn from past mistakes. But, if they don't hire a coach soon, they may once again end up with a group of assistants that's less than stellar.

NFC South Stock Watch

November, 22, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

Sean McDermott, Panthers defensive coordinator. He was hired by first-year head coach Ron Rivera, who comes with a defensive background. Plus, McDermott and Rivera were following a head coach (John Fox) who was all about defense. But the Panthers have been terrible on defense, and it seems they keep getting worse. They rank No. 27 in the league in total defense and allowed 49 points to Detroit on Sunday. This isn’t all on McDermott by any means. Carolina’s defense has been depleted by some big injuries that started way back in training camp. But even with injuries, a young defense should show some improvement as a season goes on.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
Fernando Medina/US PresswireDefense is supposed to be the area of expertise for Bucs coach Raheem Morris, but Tampa Bay's unit is ranked No. 31.
The defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. Yep, that’s head coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs are No. 31 in total defense and much of the blame for that should fall on Morris. There is some talent on the defensive side, but the Bucs seem to be regressing in this area. Since Morris bounced defensive coordinator Jim Bates in the middle of the 2009 season, it has been difficult to figure out Tampa Bay’s defensive identity, although the word “mediocre’’ would be a fitting term. The Bucs don’t stop the run well, generate very little pressure up front and, and despite some talent in the secondary, give up some big pass plays.

Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers tight end. If you look only at the numbers (nine catches for 132 yards), Winslow had a good game against Green Bay on Sunday. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Winslow had a touchdown called back because he was called for offensive pass interference. He also dropped a pass that should have given the Bucs an easy two-point conversion.

RISING

Sean Payton, Saints coach. We use the term "rising" literally here. Although Payton was back on the sideline in the last game before the bye, he was on crutches and trying to stay out of harm’s way. But the leg and knee injuries that caused Payton to sit in the press box for three games are healing nicely. On Monday night against the Giants, Payton should be much more mobile, and that should help him get a better feel for the game.

Matt Ryan, Falcons quarterback. Ryan threw for 316 yards in Sunday’s victory against Tennessee. That gave him the first back-to-back 300-yard games of his career. Ryan struggled with consistency – a common theme for everyone in Atlanta – earlier in the season. But he seems to be on a good path right now, and that could come in handy as the Falcons try to make a playoff push.

Roddy White, Falcons receiver. He played his best game of the season Sunday, with a season-high 147 receiving yards. With White seemingly getting on track and the possible return of Julio Jones from a hamstring injury, Atlanta suddenly could have the high-powered passing game that many of us expected at the start of the season.

Broncos have to end firing game

December, 7, 2010
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The Denver Broncos have to get out of the firing business.

This team hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2005 season and there has been an avalanche of change in Denver since. The team has been in a firing frenzy. That trend was started by former coach Mike Shanahan, who was famous for firing people if the Broncos ever slipped. But owner Pat Bowlen has continued that trend after he fired Shanahan.

Denver has to find the right people for the job and it extends past the head coach. The Broncos must find the right person to replace Josh McDaniels, who was fired 23 months after taking over for Shanahan, who lasted 14 years on the job.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyBroncos owner Pat Bowlen needs to establish some continuity within the organization.
The following is a look at some key firings in Denver and how they are still affecting this floundering franchise:

Head coach

Firing history: McDaniels clearly wasn’t the right man to replace Shanahan. Now, after going almost a decade and a half with the same coach, Bowlen has to start a coaching search for the second time in less than two years.

Current state: The Broncos have quickly gone from one of the most stable NFL franchise to being one in disarray. Two years ago, this was perhaps the most attractive job in the league because Shanahan left it in pretty good shape. With a stripped talent base and lack of an identity, this has the look of a team whose reconstruction could take awhile.

Defensive coordinator


Firing history: The defense has been a mess for several years in Denver. The beginning of the end of the Shanahan era was when Shanahan fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer after the 2006 season. Shanahan was looking for a scapegoat after a late-season collapse. Coyer was the victim. What a mistake. Coyer, now the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, is one of the best defensive coaches in the league. All stability on that side of the ball left with Coyer. It began a parade of one-year failures. Jim Bates, Bob Slowik and Mike Nolan all lasted one season in Denver. Nolan and McDaniels mutually decided to part ways after last season. Nolan did a fine job in Denver. McDaniels blew it by not making it work with Nolan, who is now in Miami.

Current state: Don Martindale will, in all likelihood, be the latest one-year Denver defensive coordinator, meaning Denver will have six defensive coordinators in six seasons. There is little chance Martindale will be kept by the new head coach. Another coaching change could potentially mean the Broncos could move back to the 4-3 base defense that Shanahan used.

Front office

Firing history: Another underrated loss was when Shanahan fired general manager Ted Sundquist. Shanahan had more power than Sundquist and he got rid of him. It was a mistake. Sundquist was a good personnel man who was detailed-oriented and who built the bottom of Denver’s roster very well. The Broncos’ roster was always deep when Sundquist was around. The team has gotten thin since he left. After Sundquist -- who is still without a job and who would likely jump at the chance to return to the Broncos -- was fired, Shanahan promoted the father-son team of Jim and Jeff Goodman. When Shanahan was gassed, the Goodmans stayed and were part of the group that hired McDaniels. They were abruptly fired less than two months after McDaniels was hired. This was a bad sign. McDaniels played a role in firing two people who were part of the decision-making team that just hired him. He had too much power for a 32-year-old first-time head coach.

Current state: Brian Xanders is the general manager, but McDaniels had more control over the team than Xanders. His future with the team is unclear. The Broncos need experienced help in the personnel department and a strong general manager would help.

Whatever happens, Denver has to stop this string of mistakes and settle on the right people at several positions.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.
TAMPA, Fla. -- If it seems like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been working later than the rest of the NFC South, it’s only because they have.

While the Saints, Falcons and Panthers (except for Steve Smith, who had a flag football game Sunday) stopped their offseason programs last week, the Bucs just wrapped up Tuesday afternoon. It was all by design, part of a master plan by coach Raheem Morris to get his rookie class as involved as possible.

With that in mind, Morris pushed his offseason program back as far as possible and, unlike every other team in the division, waited until the very end to go through a full minicamp.

“It’s been a good offseason,’’ Morris said. “There’s been a lot of progression instead of taking steps back.’’

Morris’ words might be even more true than he realizes. The Bucs really do have a different look about them this year. Tuesday’s practice sessions were more crisp than a year ago and there are a lot of reasons for that.

Start with the fact that the guys who were coordinating the offense and defense a year ago are gone. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski didn’t even make it to the regular season before getting fired. Morris ousted defensive coordinator Jim Bates in the middle of last season and took over supervising the defense.

Throw in the fact that the Bucs were going through a dog-and-pony show with their quarterback competition at this time a year ago as Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown, who weren’t really in the team’s long-term plans, were getting the first-team work.

Josh Freeman is now firmly established as the starting quarterback and he and offensive coordinator Greg Olson have had an entire offseason to work together. But the continuity isn’t just developing on offense.

Morris will continue to run the defense and he said that he’s spent a lot of time with middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

“That’s my quarterback,’’ Morris said.

Ruud and Morris have gone out to dinner multiple times and talked extensively about their visions for the defense. We’ll have to wait a few months to see the results and, with so many young players, the Bucs remain a work in progress.

But, this time around, they at least look like a team that at least has a plan. That’s something you couldn’t see a year ago.
Smith, Douglas & RuddUS Presswire, US Presswire, Icon SMISteve Smith, Barrett Ruud and Harry Douglas are all in line to have a big 2010 season.
The theme of this column, as I first pitched it to my editor, was going to be comeback players.

As I thought more about that, going the traditional route on that one would have limited us to guys who were injured last season. That’s why I decided to stretch the parameters on this one a bit. Yes, we’re going to include some guys who were injured last season. But we’re also going to include some guys who were limited by other things.

Whatever the circumstances, and we’ll detail them when we get to them, I wanted to examine five NFC South players who I think will be much more productive in 2010 than they were in 2009.

Smith
Steve Smith, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers. It may seem strange to include a guy who came up 18 yards short of what would have been a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in a conversation about comeback players. But, again, we’re stretching the parameters here.

I truly expect Smith to have a much bigger season than he did last year and there are several reasons for this. First off, we all know Carolina had major problems at quarterback last season as Jake Delhomme played his way out of a job. Smith still managed 65 catches and seven touchdowns, and his numbers could have been better if he hadn’t missed the final game with an injury.

With Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen, Carolina is making a fresh start on offense and the running game always will be the backbone of a John Fox team. But Smith is still the best player on this offense. He’s made some noise in the offseason about how he’s not sure he still wants to be a No. 1 receiver and might be ready to step into a secondary role.

If you believe that, call me because I’ve got 10 acres of swamp land in Florida I’d love to sell you. More than anything else, Smith is a competitor. I don’t think he has it in him to be a second or third receiver right now. Besides, who do the Panthers have who could move ahead of him?

Smith’s mind operates in unique ways. He’s also made references to people saying he's “losing a step’’ because he’s 31. I haven’t seen or heard anyone say that and I’ve seen no evidence of that. Part of the reason Smith has had such a great career is because he’s found ways to motivate himself with perceived slights.

He’s played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder and that’s worked well for him. It may be totally by his own doing, but it looks like Smith has added a couple chips this year. That’s why the little guy might come up bigger than ever in 2010.

Ruud
Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember in coach Jon Gruden’s last season in Tampa Bay when he kept saying Ruud should be included in talk about the NFL’s best middle linebackers? Gruden had a point. Ruud was making plays and seemed to be ascending as fast as any player in the league.

Ruud seemed on the verge of being a true star and the face of the franchise when Gruden left and the new regime cut ties with Derrick Brooks and a bunch of older players. But Ruud never emerged as a difference-maker last season. He produced a career-best 142 tackles last season, but can you recall him making a single big play?

Not really. But let’s not put all of the blame on Ruud. There was chaos for most of Raheem Morris’ first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The Bucs tried to switch to a different defense under coordinator Jim Bates, who got fired midway through the season. Tampa Bay switched back to the old Monte Kiffin defense and things got a little better at the end of the year.

The Bucs went out and drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. That should make Ruud the happiest guy in town. He still doesn’t have that long-term contract he’s been seeking for more than a year. But his plays no longer will start with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims getting blown 5 yards off the ball. McCoy and Price should fill some space and keep blockers off Ruud.

That should allow him to start making the kind of plays that will get him a big contract.

Douglas
Douglas
Harry Douglas, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons. We’re getting back to the true formula for a comeback player here. Douglas missed all of last season after suffering an injury early in the preseason.

I still don’t think a lot of people realize how significant this injury was to the Falcons. They had huge plans for Douglas in his second season. He was going to be the third receiver in this offense. The Falcons were planning on using him in the slot and bringing a whole new dynamic to their offense.

The injury prevented that and really kept Atlanta’s offense from ever hitting its stride last season. But Douglas should be back at full strength and that alone could change the complexion of an offense that’s loaded just about everywhere else.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White already are very good and wide receiver Michael Jenkins is dependable. Throw Douglas’ speed into the slot and Gonzalez, White and Jenkins immediately become even better. Quarterback Matt Ryan might even become great.

Ellis
Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints. On a roster where a lot of guys had career seasons last year, it’s kind of difficult to find a guy who might be markedly better this year. But Ellis fits the profile. He didn’t have a bad year last season or as a rookie in 2008.

But Ellis is one of those guys who you look at and keep thinking there’s more than we’ve seen. He’s been very good at times, but not quite dominant. That’s mainly because injuries kept him out of six games last season and three in his rookie year. When he’s on the field, the New Orleans defense is noticeably better than when he’s not.

The only thing separating Ellis from the Pro Bowl might be staying on the field for a full season.

Davis
Thomas Davis, linebacker, Carolina Panthers. Ask scouts, coaches and players who is the best linebacker in the NFC South and the consensus is Carolina’s Jon Beason. If you talk to those same people, they’ll tell you Davis was having an even better season than Beason through the first seven games of last year.

But Davis went down with a season-ending injury that stopped what seemed to be a true breakout year. Davis switched to linebacker after playing safety in college and it took him a few years to adjust. But Davis had been pretty good the past couple of years and he was playing at an All-Pro level before the injury.

He’s expected back at full strength this year. With defensive end Julius Peppers gone, the Panthers need Davis and Beason to take over this defense.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can Raheem Morris be a better coach than he was last year?

Let’s be honest, it probably would be impossible for Morris to look more overwhelmed than he was the first half of last season.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireThings were anything but easy for Raheem Morris during his first season as the Bucs' head coach.
The rookie Tampa Bay coach seemed to be desperately grasping for any sort of hope as he changed offensive and defensive coordinators, quarterbacks, kickers and punters. It took the Bucs a long time to win or even look like an NFL team.

But if you look closely at the chaos that was Tampa Bay’s season last year, you can spot some progress, particularly from the head coach. The guy showed an ability to admit his mistakes and move on from them. That’s a unique quality and that’s why there’s a chance Morris might have grown quite a bit last season.

We’ll have to wait to see how this season plays out, but Morris is in a much better spot than he was a year ago. Morris realized Jim Bates’ defensive scheme wasn’t working out and fired the veteran coordinator. Morris took the reins of the defense, went back to the Tampa 2 and the Bucs actually played decent defense at the end of the season.

They now will spend an entire offseason working on the defense they’ll actually play all season. Same for the offense, where coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was fired just prior to the start of last season. There were a lot of issues (more than we’ll ever know) going on with Jagodzinski, but the bottom line was the offense wasn’t getting any real coaching. Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson suddenly had the offense dumped on him at the same time he was trying to get rookie quarterback Josh Freeman ready to step on the field and the early results weren’t pretty.

But the Bucs, most importantly Freeman, will have an entire offseason in the Olson offense. That alone should help Morris look a lot better. He’s not suddenly going to turn into the league’s most brilliant coach.

But Morris’ willingness to admit his mistakes and fix them should make him a better coach in his second season.

Denver let Colts coordinator go

February, 1, 2010
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Not long ago, I was chatting with a member of the Mike Shanahan regime in Denver.

The former Denver employee and I were discussing what decision marked the beginning of the end for Shanahan’s 14-season run in Denver.

After tossing around a few ideas, we came to a consensus: Larry Coyer.

Shanahan should never have fired Coyer, now the defensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts, as his defensive coordinator. Shanahan’s Broncos never rebounded from his decision to jettison the innovative, successful and popular Coyer after a late-season collapse in 2006.

The Broncos’ defense was in a shambles in 2007 and 2008. After Coyer was fired, Shanahan hired Jim Bates to run the defense. He was fired 12 months later. Then, Bob Slowik was promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2008 season. He was fired along with Shanahan. Thursday, second-year Denver coach Josh McDaniels promoted linebackers coach Don Martindale to be the defensive coordinator, replacing Mike Nolan.

Martindale is Denver’s fifth defensive coordinator in five seasons.

I wonder if Shanahan would still be the coach in Denver if he hadn't fired Coyer?

Coyer’s units were always strong. He was blitz master and he made terrific in-game adjustments.

Coyer, of course, has moved on nicely. He is six days away from leading the Colts’ defense in the Super Bowl against New Orleans.

Advice for Raheem Morris

January, 5, 2010
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Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer came out late Monday night and said coach Raheem Morris will get a second season. Good for the Glazer family for not hitting the panic button and doing something desperate.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesNow that Raheem Morris knows he'll be back next season, he has work to do.
I know the news might not sit well with Tampa Bay fans, who had visions of some fancy, high-priced coach coming in and instantly taking the Bucs to the Super Bowl. That was fantasy. The reality is the Bucs have a long way to go and Morris might be the right guy to get them there.

Yes, he made some very questionable moves in his first year and looked overwhelmed at times. But he did seem to learn from his mistakes and had the Bucs playing respectably for the last month. They finished 3-13, which if you’re really honest with yourself, isn’t all that different from what was realistically expected at the beginning of the season.

Remember, the Bucs, with the blessing or maybe even the orders of the Glazers, undertook a huge rebuilding effort. You could even call it a gutting. Things got very ugly, but Morris was able to show a little progress at the end.

This job is far from over. But, like it or not, the fact is, Morris is staying. With that in mind, here are five pieces of advice for Morris as he prepares for his second season.

1. Go out and hire a defensive coordinator. You did a fine job of taking over the defense after dumping Jim Bates. You went back to the Tampa Two and it worked. There are plenty of guys out there who are well versed in the Tampa Two, including some big names and there could be even more on the market in the coming days. Go out and get one of them. You’ve got more than enough on your plate as the head coach.

2. Find a stud defensive tackle. You’re sitting at No. 3 in the draft and all the talk is that Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh could be the first player taken. Hang loose a bit on this. Pre-draft workouts sometimes change things and Suh still could be available at No. 3. If you get close to the draft and it looks like he’s going at No. 1, trade up and get him. He’s exactly what you need and you’ve got 10 draft picks as ammunition to move up.

3. Continue building around Josh Freeman. The rookie quarterback did some really good things once he got to play and he did them with a horrible team around him. Go out and get him some real wide receivers to go with tight end Kellen Winslow. Let Antonio Bryant walk and, if you’re still sold on Michael Clayton, keep him around as a backup. You’ve got a good slot receiver in Sammie Stroughter. Now, go out and get two real NFL starters for Freeman to throw to.

4. Keep Greg Olson as your offensive coordinator. Yeah, I know some fans aren’t high on Olson, who was thrown into the role when you fired Jeff Jagodzinski on the eve of the season. But ignore the criticism. Olson’s been a coordinator in the NFL before and he’s got a year in of working with Freeman. Let the two of them stay together and build on the good things that came out of the second half of the season.

5. Settle on a kicker and punter. You went through more kickers and punters in your first year than some coaches go through in a career. Kickers and punters actually are important and continuity means a lot. Get the guys you want in the offseason and stick with them.

Players stepping up to support Morris

December, 16, 2009
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There’s one encouraging trend emerging when it comes to the future of Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris.

He seems to still have the locker room. Center Jeff Faine used very strong words Wednesday to say he believes Morris should not be let go after a first season that hasn’t gone well at all. Injured safety/linebacker Jermaine Phillips made some pretty similar comments Monday.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesWith the Bucs at 1-12, Raheem Morris has come under fire in his first season as head coach.
This is significant. I covered the end of the Sam Wyche era in Tampa Bay and the final days of George Seifert’s disastrous era in Carolina. In those locker rooms, nobody -- and I truly mean nobody -- was stepping forward in defense of the coach.

Does it really matter what the players think? Yes, it absolutely does. Most owners around the league try to get a sense of where the players stand before firing a coach. Although the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, does operate with a great deal of stealth in the public eye, the three brothers who run the team are very smart and always very aware of what’s going on in their building.

I’m sure they’ve seen the quotes from these players and they might have heard some of the same straight from players. I’m not reporting here that the Glazer brothers have been surveying players, but that wouldn’t surprise me.

At any rate, this kind of support can only help the chances of Morris sticking around for a second season. If the players still believe in him, that’s a big positive.

One thing I found very interesting was Faine’s response when asked about Morris firing both his offensive and defensive coordinators already. The public assumption is that Morris made the hires of Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates totally by himself.

Faine indicated that might not have been the case. I’ve never heard any indication that Jagodzinski and Bates weren’t the guys Morris wanted and the rule of thumb around the league is that a coach usually hires his own coaching staff.

But this statement by Faine makes me wonder a bit. I do know for a fact that, at the very least, ownership didn’t allow Morris to do everything he wanted with the support staff. And I also think there’s a realization high in the organization that general manager Mark Dominik probably could benefit from a stronger surrounding cast in the front office.

Of course, the best thing that could happen for Morris' future would be for the Bucs, particularly rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, to go out and play well (just show some signs of progress) in the final three games. That might be enough to keep Morris in place, although I think that would come with some movement on the coaching staff, in the front office and heavy turnover on the roster.

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