Big win over New Orleans Saints doesn't come easy
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 28 December 2009|
The day began with reports that the Bucs' owners might be preparing to give up on coach Raheem Morris after just one season. It ended Sunday with his team proving it hasn't quit on him.
Morris made the best argument yet for returning in 2010 when the Bucs pulled off the biggest upset of the season, defeating the Saints 20-17 in overtime at the Louisiana Superdome.
Kicker Connor Barth made the winning 47-yard field goal with 8:06 left in overtime to stun the Saints (13-2), who built a 17-0 lead before the league's most-prolific offense was held scoreless for the final 43 minutes and 33 seconds. After the game, Morris was greeted with hugs by the Glazer family while entering the locker room.
Several minutes later, Morris indicated that he did not believe reports from multiple news sources that the Glazers had contacted former Steelers coach Bill Cowher to "gauge his interest" in coaching Tampa Bay in 2010. Looking exhausted in his postgame news conference, Morris said the Glazer family would confront him if they didn't want him to return next year.
"Hey, man, I've got a great relationship with my owners," Morris said. "The thing I know about these guys is I had a seven-year relationship with them. They interviewed me for seven years. I'm pretty sure if I was getting popped or fired or whatever you want to call it, my owners would come and tell me like men because that's who they are.
"That's what they're going to be. I'm sure Bill Cowher, everybody, wants the Bucs job. It's the best job in football. I want it, too."
Asked if he made his best case for returning in 2010 by beating the Saints, who were playing to clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, Morris said, "That's not my job. My job is to take advantage of my opportunities, and that's what we did (Sunday)."
Adding to the improbable upset was the fact that the Bucs overcame incredible odds to win their second straight game: on the road against a Saints team that scored 38 against them six weeks ago.
The Saints scored on their first three possessions, but Morris, who took over the play-calling from ousted defensive coordinator Jim Bates after the first meeting with the Saints, made great adjustments at halftime. Among the moves was switching safeties Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson, allowing for the sure-tackling Jackson to help stop the run.
But the game may be remembered most for the performances of kick returner Micheal Spurlock and running back Cadillac Williams. Spurlock, the first player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in club history in 2007, was re-signed Tuesday to replace receiver Sammie Stroughter, who went on injured reserve with a broken foot. Spurlock tied the score at 17 with a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown with 2:25 left in regulation.
Williams rushed 24 times for 129 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first Bucs player to reach the century rushing mark in a game this season. The Bucs rode Williams in overtime, giving it to him nine times for 40 of the 48 yards needed to set up Barth's winner.
The Saints, who became the 12th team in league history to score at least 500 points in a season, had a chance to win in regulation, but kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 37-yard field goal with five seconds left.
"Think about it, fellas. New Orleans came out to play football," Williams said. "They've got to clinch home field. So, those guys played football. We weren't playing against their second team or their third team. Drew Brees played the whole game. For us to come into this stadium and compete like that, man, and the thing Raheem did on defense, the adjustment he made in the second half — awesome. I tip my hat to him."
Cowher, who won Super Bowl XL in 2005, has served as an analyst for CBS since retiring from the Steelers after the 2006 season. Multiple reports Sunday said he's preparing a return to coaching in 2010 and has begun making calls to form a coaching staff.
Bucs vice president Joel Glazer had no comment to reports that the team had contacted Cowher, who had been contacted this year by the Bills after they fired coach Dick Jauron. Cowher reportedly is intrigued by possible coaching vacancies in Houston, Chicago and Carolina.
The Glazers have demonstrated a flair for the dramatic when it comes to hiring coaches. They reached a secret agreement with Bill Parcells to coach the Bucs two weeks before firing Tony Dungy after the 2001 season, but he backed out of the deal. That led to the Glazers trading four draft picks and $8 million to the Raiders for Jon Gruden.
In fact, the Bucs are on the hook for Gruden's $5 million yearly salary for two more seasons. ut several players said Sunday that they were playing for Morris and aware of his shaky job status, although few had heard the Cowher reports before the game.
"When it gets to this time of the year, I've been in the league long enough to know that teams quit," running back Earnest Graham said. "A lot of teams quit. A lot of teams don't have anything to play for; they think the coach is going to get fired. A lot of teams quit, and that's just not the character of this team."
Said Jackson: "When you have this type of season, a lot is put on the head coach and the quarterback. But that's not the truth. There's a lot of plays that aren't being made. I think everybody in this locker room is rooting hard for Raheem."
With all the rumors, it was easy to assume Morris could be a long shot to return next season. But like his team Sunday, he's not ready to abandon ship.
"They're starting to get there," Morris said. "They like winning. They found that out last week. They found that out against Green Bay. This team has the talent and the ability. I am just really proud of them. They went out there and fought. I am completely exhausted right now."