The Buccaneers fired Raheem Morris on Monday after his three seasons as Tampa Bay's head coach.
The team announced the change one day after a 45-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons extended the franchise's longest losing streak within the same season since 1977 to 10 games.
Morris went 17-31, including a 10-6 mark in 2010, when the Bucs (4-12) narrowly missed the playoffs. His entire staff of assistants was dismissed, too.
"I have has a lot of respect and appreciation for the passion coach Morris gave to our football team, but this change is one we felt was necessary," general manager Mark Dominik said in a brief statement released by the team, which is owned by the Glazer family.
"We want to thank coach Morris for all his hard work and dedication as head coach, `' team co-chairman Joel Glazer said.
The Bucs scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference to discuss the change.
The 35-year-old Morris was hired in January 2009, replacing Jon Gruden after Tampa Bay lost the final four games of 2008 to miss the playoffs following a 9-3 start.
This year's collapse followed a 4-2 start that included wins over NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta, which are both headed to the playoffs.
Morris began his stint as the NFL's youngest coach with a seven-game losing streak. It ended with a skid that rivaled some of the worst stretches in franchise history, in part because it came only a year after it looked like the Bucs might be headed in the right direction.
With young quarterback Josh Freeman showing great promise in his first full season as a starter, Tampa Bay won 10 games in 2010 to barely miss the playoffs. Morris entered training camp following the NFL lockout, declaring he had a "youngry" team that was confident it could compete with more experienced NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta for the division crown.
The team's promising start included wins at home over the Falcons and Saints that lent credence to the coach's assertion that a 48-3 road loss to San Francisco was simply a bad day at the office, not a sign that the Bucs were not nearly as good as their record suggested.
Injuries contributed to the season-ending slide, but so did inconsistent play starting with Freeman who threw for 16 touchdowns vs. 22 interceptions after tossing 25 TD passes and being intercepted just six times in 2010. The Bucs turned the ball over a league-leading 40 times compared to 19 last season.
The defense, once the proud stable of a perennial playoff contender, sank to unheard of lows in Tampa Bay. In addition to surrendering a franchise-record and league-high 494 points, the Bucs lost eight games by double-digit margins and allowed 31 of more seven times during the season-ending skid.
Making matters even worse for Morris, he served as his own defensive coordinator.
Still, last week the coach layed out his argument for keeping his job.
The Bucs had the youngest team in the NFL this season, with 30 players on the 53-man roster in the first, second or third years in the league.
In addition, there are 21 players on the roster, including leading rusher LeGarrette Blount and third-leading receiver Preston Parker, entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.
Among the veterans who didn't return in 2011 were middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and running back Cadillac Williams, who left via free agency. Rookie Mason Foster stepped into Ruud's spot and took on play-calling responsibilities, and the loss of Williams left Freeman without a proven third-down back once veteran Earnest Graham was lost for the season to injury.
"We made a collective agreement to go young when we took over this program. That's something we wanted to do," Morris said last week. "I believe in my guys. I believe in the system. I believe in the program. I believe in what we do. We want to build this thing young, and want to develop a team that goes out and wins, and wins consistently."
No one has a better understanding of how far the franchise has dipped than cornerback Ronde Barber, who became the team's all-time leader in games Sunday in the finale of his 15th season.
At 36, he's not only the oldest player on the team but the lone holdover from the roster that won the Super Bowl nine years ago. His interception and 92-yard return for a touchdown sealed Tampa Bay's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.
"It seems like a long time ago. It seems like a lifetime ago, to be honest with you. It's been a lifetime ago for a number of years. ... It almost seems like a different career," Barber said before the Atlanta game. "Lots changed since then. Our philosophy in the building. Definitely the way we play defense. It's not the same."
Barber is a close friend of Morris and conceded that whether the coach's status could influence whether he decides if he wants to return for a 16th season. Still, the team's career interceptions leader said he would not approach ownership to make a case for keeping Morris.
"That's not for me to do, even though if there was one person who could do it, it probably would be me," Barber said. "But that's not my job."
Regardless of who takes over for Morris, a major priority in the coming months will be getting Freeman - the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez - back on track.
While it's difficult to tell how much not being able to work at team facilities during the NFL lockout affected the growth of Freeman and the team's other young players, offensive coordinator Greg Olson is among those who feels that the 23-year-old quarterback will benefit having a normal offseason this year.
"I think this particular group of players, they'll get better, he'll get better," Olson said. `It will be a great learning opportunity for him to go back and look at the mistakes that were made throughout the season."
Barber sees hope, too.
"Our youth has got to be our uptick. It just has to," the cornerback said. "That's how we've chosen to manufacture this football team going forward, and we've got to lean on that as a positive."
* * * * * * * * *
Next year will be Chris Long's fifth season with the St. Louis Rams. The defensive end will be playing for his fourth coach in a seemingly endless cycle of futility.
Having survived Scott Linehan, Jim Haslett and Steve Spagnuolo, who knows what's next? And this time, the Rams also are shopping for a general manager.
"It's building, it's rebuilding. It's building, it's rebuilding," Long said. "We take some hits and we have get back up and dust ourselves off. We'll certainly have to dust ourselves off after this season."
Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney were both fired Monday, one day after the Rams wrapped up a 2-14 season tied for the NFL's worst.
The Rams made a six-win improvement last season and played for the NFC West title in the finale, but were just 10-38 overall in three seasons with Spagnuolo and Devaney calling the shots. Devaney joined the front office in 2008, but the Rams were 12-52 in his four years as GM.
"It's amazing how easily it all could have gone the other way and this would be a totally different meeting at the end of the year," Long said. "And, maybe we are still playing. It's a fine line between being good and bad in the NFL, and we've learned that over the past couple of years here."
Owner Stan Kroenke fired his coach and GM with one year remaining on their contracts, and with fan interest dwindling. The Edward Jones Dome was little more than half-full later in the year and the team had to purchase tickets to meet requirements for a sellout in the finale.
"No one individual is to blame for this disappointing season and we all must hold ourselves accountable," Kroenke said in a statement issued by the Rams. "However, we believe it's in the best interest of the St. Louis Rams to make these changes as we continue our quest to build a team that consistently competes for playoffs and championships."
Players said Spagnuolo took the high road in a meeting Monday morning.
"Coach addressed the team this morning to let us know that he was terminated and he was sorry, especially for the guys that have been here the entire three years he was coach, that he didn't get the job done," running back Steven Jackson said. "He took full responsibility."
Next April, the Rams will have the second pick of the draft, the fourth time in five seasons with the No. 1 or 2 selection. The premium picks, including Long and quarterback Sam Bradford, have not been enough to make up the frequent miscues and a puny offense run by first-year coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Names of potential replacements for Spagnuolo began to surface weeks ago as the season unraveled, with Jon Gruden and Jeff Fisher linked as naturals given their relationships with chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and agent Marvin Demoff.
Spagnuolo was considered a defensive whiz after an impressive performance by the Giants in a Super Bowl upset of the unbeaten Patriots in 2008, and got a four-year contract for his first head coaching job. The Rams were 1-15 in 2009 while undertaking a massive overhaul, then made a six-victory improvement in 2010, and entered this season viewed as NFC West contenders.
Instead, they were swamped by a difficult schedule, losing their first six in a row, and also by injuries at quarterback, the secondary and the offensive line.
Cornerback Ron Bartell, who sustained a season-ending neck injury in the opener, re-signed as a free agent with the Rams because of his respect for Spagnuolo.
"I love coach Spags to death but at the end of the day when you don't get wins this is what happens," Bartell said.
Spagnuolo was criticized for devoting too much time to the cosmetics of the job. He pushed for a $1 million renovation of the stadium locker room the team uses 10 times a year, and surrounded himself with a new trainer, public relations head, building operations manager and equipment manager.
Yet the players said they believe the foundation is here for a good team.
Long, among the league leaders with 13 sacks, said Sunday that the 49ers' quick turnaround can serve as inspiration. San Francisco made a seven-victory jump and is the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC after going 13-3, including a season-ending win in St. Louis.
"You're never as far away as you think in this league," Long said. "It's super competitive. They came out of nowhere and now they're in the playoffs and have a shot."
Devaney loaded up with free agents last summer in an effort to augment a team that was in the division race to the end but had too many misses.
The offense was the NFL's worst, with or without Bradford. The defense was the NFL's worst against the run, threatening the franchise record for yards allowed. A pair of special teams failures were devastating, a blocked field goal on the potential game-winner and a 99-yard punt return, in an overtime loss at Arizona.
The Rams put everything together once for a 31-21 upset over the 13-win Saints, even with backup A.J. Feeley calling the signals. Jackson became the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons despite the personnel upheaval and Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis also had good years.
But the team's depth was tested immediately when leading wide receiver Danny Amendola and Bartell were lost for the year and Jackson injured his quadriceps on his first carry in a season-opening loss to the Eagles
"We've got a lot of guys that unfortunately were banged up," Laurinaitis said. "I think a full offseason together will help. I don't think 2-14 reflects this team if everyone is healthy. We'll see."
SOURCE: The Associated Press
Fred Goodall and R. B. Fallstrom