Young Buccaneers expect to be improved in 2011
Raheem Morris knows how to capture the attention of his young Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A year after selling the NFL's least experienced roster on an improbable ''race to 10'' wins mantra that spurred the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history, the 34-year-old coach isn't concerned about keeping his players focused in 2011.
Despite improving from three wins two years ago to 10 last season, the Bucs failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Morris believes that alone is enough to keep third-year quarterback Josh Freeman and Co. motivated in the NFC South, which again figures to be one of football's toughest divisions.
''We're a youngry team,'' the league's youngest head coach, whose roster features just three players - cornerback Ronde Barber, fullback Earnest Graham and center Jeff Faine who are 30 or older, said.
''We were 10-6 last year and didn't make the playoffs. What will guarantee us a playoff spot is if we go out and win the division,'' Morris added. ''That will be our goal. It's clear-cut and simple. It's not simple to win the division, but it's a simple message.''
The rapid development of Freeman in his first full season as a starter was the key to last year's turnabout.
The third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez completed 61.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Freeman also was at his best in close games, leading five fourth-quarter comeback wins.
''Everything revolves around him,'' Morris said, adding the Buccaneers will steadily unloosen the reins on their emerging star as the 23-year-old's decision-making in the pocket improves.
''We do have a stud, I believe, and he probably could go out there and chuck it around 60 times a game and win a little bit easier,'' the coach said. ''But you may create some weaknesses for yourself that you're not ready to close yet.''
General manager Mark Dominik has done a good job of surrounding Freeman with talent that can help him be successful.
Second-year receiver Mike Williams had 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010, and undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount flourished, too, rushing for an NFL rookie-best 1,007 yards and six TDs after not joining the team until early September and not getting much playing time the first half of the season.
A top offseason priority was retaining the team's own free agents, beginning with guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, two important members of an improved offensive line anchored by center Jeff Faine.
Linebacker Quincy Black re-signed, too, as Dominik stuck to a rebuilding plan that's emphasized drafting well and not spending heavily on other team's free agents. The exception this year was bringing in punter Michael Koenen, who was with division rival Atlanta the past six seasons.
''I think it's about getting better at what you do,'' Morris said, explaining the emphasis on developing from within in hopes of building the type of stability that helped the Bucs win their only Super Bowl title nine seasons ago.
Tampa Bay hasn't won a playoff game since.
''What we do is play hard, play fast, play smart and consistent. If we have the ability to get better at all those things, and finish games ... we will have a chance to achieve our goals,'' Morris said.
''Everybody knows that last year means absolutely nothing,'' he added of last year's success. ''We've got to play better and be more consistent in big games.''
For the second straight year, Dominik used the team's top two picks in the draft on defensive linemen in hopes of bolstering a sagging pass rush that produced just 26 sacks in 2010.
First-round selection Adrian Clayborn is a projected opening-day starter at right end. Second-rounder Da'Quan Bowers - a potential top-10 pick before undergoing knee surgery - is expected to eventually take over at left end, next to second-year tackle Gerald McCoy.
Morris, who serves as his own defensive coordinator, is also counting on third-round pick Mason Foster to step into the lineup right away at middle linebacker, where leading tackler Barrett Ruud was lost to free agency.
Barring injuries, the Bucs could begin the season with at least five starters on offense with less than three years pro experience. The team is even less experienced on defense with eight regulars fitting that category, including two rookies and a pair of second-year pros.
However, Morris and his players insist they'll never use youth as an explanation for not winning.
''It wasn't an excuse last year,'' Freeman said. ''It's the NFL. It doesn't matter if you have freshmen playing or rookies or whatever it is, you've got to go out and compete. You get one shot in the NFL. You want to make the most of it.''