WR Sylvester Morris has put three seasons of injury problems behind him and is working out every day with the Buccaneers
In his first season in the National Football League, Sylvester Morris caught 48 passes for 678 yards and three touchdowns.
Charlie Joiner's first season with 48 or more receptions came nine years into his NFL career.
You may ask, and rightfully so, what would make us compare Morris, who has not played a down of regular-season football since that fine rookie showing, with Joiner, whose 750 career receptions are tied for the 13th most in league history. Well, it wasn't our idea.
It was Joiner himself who first drew the comparison.
The Hall-of-Fame receiver has coached his old position for the Kansas City Chiefs since 2001, which put him in a position to encourage the star-crossed Morris, a KC first-round pick in 2000. After that breakout rookie campaign, Morris suffered a string of injuries that kept him out of the next three regular seasons. It was the kind of bad luck that might bring any athlete to curse his fate. Morris, however, is remarkably sanguine about the last three years, in part because Joiner offered such an uplifting example.
"I look at it like this: football's a tough game and people get injured," said Morris, with no trace of bitterness. "I was fortunate enough to have a coach out there, Charlie Joiner, who played for 18 years, and his first three years he was hurt every year.
"He used to tell me all the time, 'Man, my career started just like yours.' By him telling me that, and to see the production he had the rest of his career, I never got too down. I knew my talent; when I was healthy, I was able to play in this league. And I am able to play. So I just waited for the day when I got healthy, and I can go from here."
The trouble started almost exactly three years ago. While putting in an offseason workout in June, Morris tore up his right knee. The ACL tear was bad enough; that would keep him out for a year, as it has for many players before him. Unfortunately, Morris injured several other ligaments in the joint, resulting in a far worse prognosis. Doctors told him not to expect to be back in action for two years.
He thought he could do it in one.
"I tried to come back, even though the doctor said it probably wouldn't work," recounted Morris. "So I went through the whole training camp – practices, scrimmages, even a couple preseason games – before I got hurt again. Last year, I didn't play in any games, but I practiced, went through all the mini-camps. I tore the labrum in my hip on the first play of camp. I missed the whole camp, and they let me rehab, but that ended my career in Kansas City."
Joiner didn't miss any complete seasons, like Morris has, but his slowly building stat lines make it clear that his vast potential was diminished in the early going by injuries. Playing for Houston first, then Cincinnati, then Houston again, then Cincinnati again, Joiner had just seven catches as a rookie, eight in his fourth year, and never more than 37 in any of his first eight seasons. He missed half of the 1969 season and half of the '72 campaign.
It wasn't until Joiner became a San Diego Charger in 1976 that his career really took off. He is now indelibly linked with that franchise. Perhaps it will take the right change of scenery to give Morris' career the same push.
"I had my fair share of big plays, a couple 100-yard games as a rookie," said Morris. "But that's all in the past. I'm just trying to build on each thing I'm doing here in Tampa."
He is not worried about recovering those three years, or pushing himself too hard in an effort to avoid missing a fourth.
"I'm just taking it day by day," he said. "I'm not trying to rush it. One thing I learned in my rehab is that you don't rush these things. When I wake up in the morning, I'm ready to take care of that day, and everything else will fall into place.
Since my injury last year, I've just worked out, tried to stay ready in case a team called, and just waited. And I feel blessed and fortunate to end up here in Tampa."
Morris signed with the Buccaneers in February after working out in Houston in front of dozens of scouts from around the NFL. Of course, the workout was actually organized to give interested teams a close-up look at then-Houston Texans quarterback Drew Henson, but Morris provided the routes and the hands and looked good to Buccaneer scouts.
Morris didn't hesitate to accept Tampa Bay's offer to resuscitate his career in Florida.
"I wanted to come to Tampa all along," he said. "I liked the situation here. I felt I could come in here and compete. I knew I fit what the coaches wanted. I just thought there was a real opportunity for me to come down here and compete for a job."
There was another draw for Morris to the Buccaneers. Before Joiner took over the Chiefs' receivers in 2001, Richard Mann held the position. Mann, now Tampa Bay's wide receivers coach, had an up-close look at what Morris is capable of when free from injuries.
"He knew me when I was healthy," said Morris. "I knew he was one guy who would be able to look at what I'm doing and tell me whether it looked like what I was doing my rookie year. All things considered, I felt like this was my best opportunity."
The Bucs have made several other changes to their receiving corps since signing Morris, most notably trading for speed demon Joey Galloway and drafting all-around talent Michael Clayton in the first round. Still, the position is clearly one in flux in Tampa, and Morris thinks he can do what is necessary to earn a spot and contribute.
"I believe I can do whatever is required from a receiver," he said. "I can get deep, I can go across the middle, possession receiver – whatever the coaches want me to do, I think I can do it and be a total receiver."
The injuries, a thing of the past. Perhaps that means his best years will be a thing of the future.
"Right now I'm ready, 100 percent," said Morris. "I don't even see the training staff, other than to get my ankles taped. I just need a team to give me an opportunity, now that I'm healthy, to show what I'm capable of doing."