Raheem Morris (center) made the Buccaneers much more difficult to score on after he took over play-calling duties on defense last year
Raheem Morris, who was named the eighth head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 17, 2009, liked to joke that he was the only defensive coordinator in franchise history not to give up a single point.
The joke, however, only had a shelf life of about 10 months.
Of course, even when it was "true," it was only in a technical sense. After long-time Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin departed for the University of Tennessee following the 2008 season, the Buccaneers turned without hesitation to Morris to take over that post. Actually, since Kiffin had confirmed his plans with about a month left in the season, the team actually offered the position to Morris on Christmas Eve, and it was announced the next day. Kiffin finished the 13th season of his legendary run as Tampa Bay's coordinator on December 28, then turned the reins over to Morris, who had been the team's defensive backs coach.
As it turned out, that would be only the first of two major promotions for Morris. After several weeks of post-season evaluation, the organization chose to dismiss Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen on January 16. The next day, Morris took over the corner coaching office and Mark Dominik became the new G.M.
So, yes, Morris held the position of defensive coordinator for about 20 days, during which nary a single point or yard was recorded against the Buccaneers, who would have preferred to have been still testing those limits in postseason play. Instead, the team was in the middle of constructing a new coaching staff, and Jim Bates was brought in to be Morris' defensive coordinator five days after the switch at head coach.
Morris' personal shutout as the D.C. lasted until November 29, 11 games into his first year at the helm. Atlanta's Jason Elam kicked a 45-yard field goal following a 41-yard drive to score the first points of what would eventually be a last-second 20-17 Atlanta win.
One could argue that Morris' "record" was still intact, as he wasn't officially the team's defensive coordinator. He was, however, most definitely playing that role, directly guiding the defense after choosing to take over the play-calling from Bates earlier in the week. From that point to the end of the 2009 season, Morris was the de facto defensive coordinator.
So his shutout went from hypothetical and humorous to impossible to maintain, but this much quickly became clear: The Bucs had made a good choice when they originally named Morris their defensive coordinator. Yes, the young coach proved to have much more he could offer the team in a larger role - thus the promotion to head coach - but that didn't have to stop him from helping the team with his very detailed defensive acumen.
Morris called the plays on defense for the final six games of the 2009 season. To be sure, the Bucs were no defensive juggernaut during that stretch, certainly nothing that would compare with the many dominant seasons of the previous dozen years. However, they were clearly improved, from Day One of the switch and right to the end of the season.
Through the first 10 games of the season, the Buccaneers ranked 27th in overall defense and 31st in scoring defense, allowing 378.3 points and 29.4 points per game in that span. During the final six games, with Morris directing the action, the Buccaneers ranked 15th in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. The team reduced its yards allowed by roughly 10 percent per game but most importantly became much harder to score against. The Bucs allowed only 17.7 points per game over the final six weeks, an improvement of nearly two touchdowns.
While announcing several changes to their defensive coaching staff for 2010 on Tuesday, the Buccaneers also confirmed that Morris will continue in his dual role as the defensive coordinator next season. It is not particularly unusual for a head coach to serve as the play-caller on one side of the ball or the other, though it is probably somewhat more common on offense. For the Buccaneers, it is simply a matter of believing they have found the best man for the job.
In addressing the decision, Dominik pointed to Morris' track record when it comes to producing results on defense. He was referring to more than just the last six weeks of 2009.
Morris first started with the Buccaneers as a defensive quality control assistant in 2002, the season Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII. Obviously, it would be silly to give one assistant coach too much of the credit for that achievement, but Morris was obviously exposed to a very effective staff. The Buccaneers' defense in 2002 produced one of the great seasons in NFL history, easily leading the NFL in both points and yards allowed, scoring nine touchdowns (including the postseason) and holding all of its opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 48.4.
Morris became a defense assistant in 2003 and then the assistant defensive backs coach for the following two years. During that entire time, he worked closely with Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin, who is now a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, there's a good chance Morris would have replaced Tomlin when the latter moved to Minnesota in 2006 to become the Vikings' defensive coordinator. However, Morris had already left to become the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, despite not yet reaching his 30th birthday.
Though he stayed just one season at K-State, Morris made his mark. The Wildcats made improvements in several defensive categories, and not surprisingly the biggest leap was in pass defense. Kansas State allowed 230.5 yards of passing offense per game. the year before Morris arrived, but just 197.0 per game in 2006. Kansas State also shaved four points per game off its points allowed after Morris' arrival.
Tampa Bay's defense ranked first overall in 2005 and sixth against the pass. After the departure of Tomlin and Morris, it fell to 17th overall and 19th against the pass in 2006. That marked the only season since the arrival of Kiffin in 1996 that Tampa Bay's pass defense ranked lower than 13th, and only the second time it had been out of the top 10 in that 11-year span. It's not hard to see why the Buccaneers lured Morris back to Tampa in 2007.
Taking over the defensive backs, Morris got instant results. In fact, Tampa Bay finished first in the NFL in pass defense in Morris' first year back, 2007, just as it had in 2002 and 2004. The Bucs allowed opposing quarterbacks to record a combined passer rating of 76.2 that season. In 2008, Morris' second year in the DB room, the Bucs' pass defense dropped all the way to fourth in the NFL but actually had a better opponent passer rating of 75.3, in part due to the 22 interceptions secured along the way.
Looking at some of the specifics of the Bucs' defensive numbers after the switch in play-calling last season, some of the same improvements become obvious, particularly in the passing game. Tampa Bay's defense allowed opposing QBs to post a combined passer rating of 94.0 through the first 10 games of the season. Over the final six, that number fell precipitously to 76.6.
The Buccaneers expect Morris to lead the team to greater defensive improvement in 2010; in fact, they hope to return to the elite status that the team has enjoyed on that side of the ball for so long. As Dominik pointed out, that has certainly been Morris' track record.