TAMPA — Raheem Morris never made it to the podium for his season-ending press conference Monday at One Buc Place. Less than an hour earlier, the club issued a short statement that Morris was out as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and that his entire staff was gone, too — the conclusion to a collapse of seismic proportions.
In the end, Morris got the blame for a campaign that crumbled under the weight of a 10-game losing streak — fired, ironically, a year to the day after his team finished 10-6.
But the fault lines extend well beyond the man who spent three years at the helm.
The Glazers and general manager Mark Dominik built the youth-heavy, free-agent-scarce foundation that wasn’t sturdy enough to stand up to NFL competition. And meeting the press later in the day, both accepted some of the responsibility in the disaster of 2011, fielding questions on what went wrong and discussing plans for a wide-open search with no timetable to hire Morris’ successor.
“We visited with coach Morris and informed him of our decision,” said Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer.
“First of all, we thanked him for all his hard work and years with the Buccaneers. It was an emotional meeting. You know, Raheem’s been with us for nearly a decade. As you all know, he’s a class act. He’s worked hard and gave his life to the Buccaneers. But at the end of the day, we felt we had to do what was in the best interest of this organization. And that’s what we decided to do.”
Glazer insisted it was not just one factor that led to the decision, but a combination. And in broad terms, he acknowledged that the responsibility for the landmark nosedive was a shared one.
“Everyone has to take some responsibility for the results of the season, whether it’s the owners, the general manager, the players, the entire organization — you can’t hide from your part in the whole situation,” he said.
The chief factor Glazer cited in the decision to let Morris go: “I’ll point to progress of the team and where we’re at. But again, you can’t point to one thing or another. You look at the totality of the situation.”
Asked about the decision to keep Dominik on board, Glazer responded, “You look at everything. Obviously, you look at the whole situation. But we had discussions, and at the end of the day, you look at positive and negatives, and you can’t only see negatives — you’ve got to try to find some positives. So we felt like keeping that situation the way it was, and we have a good working relationship with Mark, as we did with Raheem.”
The larger question now is whether the Glazers will keep things the way they are financially, or spend more money to bring in the veteran talent and leadership that was sorely missing from this edition of the Bucs.
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Dominik, carrying out his bosses’ wishes, shunned a rich free-agent market after the lockout, and the Bucs eventually would pay for that strategy on the field.
“We will always do what it takes to win,” Glazer said. “I never hide from our responsibility in this, because we’re 4-12. We’re the owners and starts with us.”
Glazer explained that last year’s 10-6 finish with a largely young team created a sense the Bucs could win without an infusion of free agency.
“As we look back, were we too young this year?” he asked. “I don’t know. At 4-12, you could make that argument. At 10-6, you think, ‘Well, we’re heading in the right direction.’ ”
Dominik echoed Glazer’s comments.
“I do take responsibility for what happened on this football field as well,” he said. “Obviously, as the general manager, my job is to help acquire talent and provide talent and draft players to get us to a competitive level. Obviously, we all felt after 10-6 that the team was going in the right direction.”
But after a promising 4-2 start this season, that direction was a straight down, starting with the 24-18 loss to the Chicago Bears Oct. 23 at Wembley Stadium in London.
Morris might have had a chance to make a case for himself had the players displayed any competitive spark in the last two months. He might have been able to get a reprieve and get one more chance to coach the NFL’s youngest team through a full slate of OTAs and mini-camps next year — something that wasn’t possible due to the extended lockout of 2011.
But he wasn’t able to get the inexperienced roster to respond to his leadership or instill any sense of urgency. That was evidenced in the past two months with one crushing loss after the next, culminating with Sunday’s 45-24 humiliation at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, who led 42-0 before pulling many of their starters.
Doubling as defensive coordinator, Morris watched his disorganized unit deteriorate into statistically the worst in the franchise history, setting the team record Sunday for most points allowed in a season with 494. Another startling statistic: Opposing teams averaged 194 rushing against the Bucs defense over the last six games.
The disintegration was simply too vast to buy Morris any more time: losses down the stretch of 38-19 and 48-16 to the fellow NFC South doormat Carolina, 41-14 to AFC East cellar-dweller Jacksonville, 31-15 to a mediocre Dallas team that fizzled in the playoff run and the disaster in Atlanta. In three of those games (Jacksonville, Dallas and Atlanta), opponents ran off unanswered point streaks of 41, 28 and 42 points.
Morris’ players stood by him throughout the unfolding losing streak, and did so right up until the end.
“Just looking at us (Sunday), you could tell the execution wasn’t there,” said Pro Bowl offensive guard Davin Joseph. “There’s only so much a coach can do before it falls on the players. if you ask me, I think as players we need too perform better.”
Joseph insisted that Morris never lost the trust or respect of the team.
“No, I think a lot of that is accountability for each individual player,” he said. “You cannot put it on Raheem. Everybody has to do their job, and it’s a team effort.”
Added offensive tackle Donald Penn: “The head coach isn’t the guy who makes the turnovers or is out there missing tackles or not making plays. We haven’t been on top of things like we were last year.”
Center Jeff Faine had a different take.
“The two things that held us back, especially on offense, was turnovers and the big-picture concepts — our guys realizing what makes the whole play go, and not just their individual job,” he said. “You can’t learn those things within a week; you’ve got to learn those things within a season — that’s offseason OTAs and learning all the things that make this system work.”
As for blaming Morris, he said, “I don’t think he deserves it. I think the hand he was dealt was a tough play at the table.”
Faine said he knows the road to getting back on track won’t be easy.
“It’s not going to be magic,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to flip a switch and just hit the reset button and then all of a sudden everything is better. A lot of time needs to be invested, a lot of effort, a lot of work.”
That work will now fall to a new head coach, and speculation will no doubt focus on former Tennessee Titans leader Jeff Fisher, whose name has been linked to an array of NFL head-coaching openings. Bill Cowher, who guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl greatness, will likely be the target of speculation as well, though Cowher would be tough to pry from the CBS broadcast booth.
But get ready for an extended search period, because the Tampa Bay owners — with Dominik’s assistance in the interview process — don’t appear to be in any hurry.
“I’m not going to put any artificial deadlines on this,” Glazer said. “We’re going to talk to people until we find the right person. And when we find the right person — and it’s the right chemistry and the right belief in what that person stands for … and (in his) working relationships with the general manager and everybody else in the organization — that’s when we’ll make the decision.”
Glazer tried to sound an optimistic note amid the uncertainty.
“I feel brighter days are ahead,” he said. “I feel confident that we’ll get this ship in the right direction and bring in a coach who this community can be proud of and players can respond to — and get this behind us. We’ll hang our head for a little while, but then we’re going to come right back and we’re going to work tirelessly to change it. We don’t like losing. I can assure you, no one likes losing less than us.”
Ultimately, the sheer magnitude of it cost Morris his job.