Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris doesn't like his players to ride the "emotional roller coaster." Good days, bad days, wins, losses, favorable and unfavorable press, injuries, lineup changes, touchdowns, interceptions, big plays and breakdowns – it all needs to be "gray matter" to his team.
These are common Morris phrases, of course, but they aren't empty words. The Bucs' young leader is an outgoing coach who can make personal and emotional connections with his players, but when it comes to the actual execution of football, he wants a steady keel at all times.
That was nearly impossible this week. It was difficult for anyone associated with the Buccaneers to avoid riding that roller coaster when beloved Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon unexpectedly passed away the weekend before the 2011 season opener. Throw in the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies, which will be remembered in a big way on Sunday around the league, as well as the unavoidable adrenaline surge of opening day, and this was no ordinary lead-up to a game. In fact, those emotional aspects of the week will continue right up until game time, as the team honors both Selmon and the heroes of 9/11 in a series of tributes leading up to kickoff.
Morris knew he had to let his team deal with its feelings regarding Selmon and 9/11, and he had to help them maintain a focus on their goal for Sunday at the same time. He thinks his young roster struck the proper balance, and that it will use the memory of Selmon, in particular, as a positive influence on opening day.
"We always deal with gray matter, but when it comes to things like this you've got to talk about having the preparation to be able to deal with it," said Morris. "That's what we're going to do. We've gone out there, we watched the greatest Buccaneer pass, we were able to go to his services and properly see him off, and now it's time to go out there and win it for him and play football like he would want us to."
Many times over the last two seasons, Morris has been impressed at the overreaching maturity of his young players, particularly such youthful leaders as QB Josh Freeman, WR Mike Williams and DT Gerald McCoy. Despite all of the emotional demands of the week, Morris helped his team keep its perspective and prepare as rigorously as it should. And he didn't do it by downplaying the importance of Sunday's game.
"It's just been fun, not too high, not too low," said Morris. "We believe the team is ready; they did a nice job of preparing this week for the biggest game of their life. Every time you play this game, and you're fortunate enough to be able to go out there, it's the biggest game you can play in. So today we play the Detroit Lions, and it's the biggest game of our lives."
That approach does concede that Sunday's centerpiece is, indeed, a game. The NFL is important, and for the coaches and players on the sideline it's their profession and their livelihood, but it is built around a game. In 2001, the NFL postponed all of its games the weekend following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; 10 years later, games will go on but nobody will forget that there are events that can touch our lives more deeply.
"It's a great time to honor our military…and not only our military but the police departments and the fire departments, everybody in the service area who was able to help during those events," said Morris. "That is something that we all remember. It's also a time to honor everybody, everybody in the stands, all the people who helped each other during that time, all the people who were able to go to New York and help people find their family members. This is a special time not just for the Buccaneers but for everybody in the league, everyone in those seats, everyone watching on television. I think it will be a great remembrance, and a great time for all of us to sit back and reflect."
But not for long, at least not early on Sunday afternoon. Morris will surely feel the pregame impact like everybody else in the stadium, but he'll be ready to go moments later.
"The emotional level switches for me right after the jets fly by, right after the national anthem and it's time to go play football. It's time to conduct business. One of the first things I learned in this business of coaching is that no matter what is going on around you, when you walk into that building it's time to do your job. And that's what time it is."
Almost all of the Buccaneers' 53 players will be able to take care of business on opening day, as only second-year CB Myron Lewis (ankle) has been ruled out for today's game due to injury. LB Dekoda Watson was questionable heading into the weekend due to a hamstring strain but he has been cleared to play and is among the team's 46 gameday active players. As expected, starting left guard Ted Larsen, who was listed as probable on Friday's injury report due to an ankle ailment, will suit up and take his spot with the starting line.
With the slight change in gameday active rules in the NFL this year – teams can now keep up any 46 active players, instead of 45 plus an inactive third quarterback – the Bucs had to name only seven inactives on Sunday morning. Those seven are RB Allen Bradford, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson, G Derek Hardman and TE Zach Pianalto. Only Lewis was out due to injury.
Six Buc rookies are likely to make their NFL debuts today: S Devin Holland, LS Christian Yount, LB Mason Foster, TE Luke Stocker, DE Da'Quan Bowers and DE Adrian Clayborn. Foster and Clayborn will start, at middle linebacker and right defensive end, respectively.
Detroit has no changes to its starting lineup, either. Their seven inactives are QB Drew Stanton, CB Alphonso Smith, LB Doug Hogue, G Jacques McClendon, T Jason Fox and DT Nick Fairley. Smith, Fox and Fairley were out due to injury. Fairley was Detroit's first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
The Bucs and Lions kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.