It appears that the Bermuda Triangle has managed to relocate a few hundred miles west over Florida, swallowing up the careers of NFL coaches this year.
With Jack Del Rio already gone in Jacksonville and Tony Sparano dismissed in Miami, the focus turns on whether Raheem Morris will survive his third season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ultimately, will he get a chance to learn from his mistakes with the Buccaneers or will he have to wait for another chance elsewhere?
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Morris downplayed concerns about his future after an embarrassing 41-14 loss at Jacksonville on Sunday. But that loss, which featured seven turnovers and 12 more penalties to keep the Bucs No. 3 in the NFL in flags, seems to be the culmination of rapid erosion after Tampa Bay went 10-6 and nearly made the playoffs in 2010.
At 4-9, the young Bucs have regressed to playpen behavior after looking so advanced the previous year. Starting with cornerback Aqib Talib's shootout at his neighborhood corral (inspired by, of all people, his mother) in the offseason, defensive tackle Brian Price got sent home by Morris after being flagged for a personal foul in Week 13 and running back LeGarrette Blount has been implicated in the beating of a fan (this one is questionable, but Blount does have a history in this regard). To make matters worse, the Bucs have seen quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Mike Williams take steps back in their play.
Some of the character issues reflect on Morris because he has been criticized for being too close to his players and that's starting to show. Ultimately, there are two reasons players like playing for certain coaches: Either the coach is permissive and allows undisciplined players to do as they wish or a coach is strict and gives disciplined players the structure within which to succeed.
This offseason, Morris became too much of the first example when he spoke up for Talib. After getting arrested for the gun incident, Tampa Bay management was ready to cut ties with Talib once and for all, according to a team source. General manager Mark Dominik didn't care about Talib's supreme talent, the distractions were no longer worth the drama, the source said. Talib had been in at least four altercations with teammates and coaches before the gun incident and was arrested for assaulting a taxi driver in 2009.
Because of the lockout, the Bucs couldn't follow through right away, giving Morris time to talk Dominik away from the proverbial ledge. In the process, Morris sent a message to his young team that talent trumps character.
"Wrong message," a Bucs player said this week. "Raheem believes he can get through to anybody and he can, to an extent. Guys do listen to him. But sometimes they have to see that you're going to back it up … [Talib] is a huge talent, but you have to know there are certain guys who are impossible to get through to."
Or as John Wooten, the 75-year-old chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance who recently sent Morris a note after the Price incident, said this week: "It's like Paul Brown used to say, you don't win with thugs. Thugs eventually hurt the team."
Sadly, when Morris reversed course and sent Price home in the middle of a game, it may have been too little, too late. Even his postgame rant featuring an f-bomb regarding Price came off as a little hollow. That's too bad because Morris has the makings of a great head coach. He sees the big picture, he isn't afraid to admit mistakes (his quick firing of Jeff Jagodzinski and dismissal of Jim Bates in 2009 are proof of that).
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Sometimes even great coaching candidates have their lapses. Morris' soft spot for players may be something he can't overcome this time around.
Minority coaching candidates
Perhaps it's merely coincidence, but all three of the teams who have fired coaches so far have hired African-American interim coaches. Jacksonville promoted defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Kansas City did the same with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Miami put assistant head coach Todd Bowles in charge. Those who don't trust the process might think that each of those teams was doing that so they could get a head start on fulfilling the Rooney Rule, which requires teams that are hiring from outside the organization to interview at least one minority candidate. Wooten, who advises the league on the Rooney Rule, said he believes that all three moves were simply natural appointments. "Romeo is [Kansas City general manager] Scott Pioli's guy from New England, Todd Bowles came to the Dolphins with [Miami GM] Jeff Ireland from Dallas and Mel Tucker and [Jacksonville GM] Gene Smith have a long-time relationship," Wooten said. "But just because they get to be the interim guy, that doesn't constitute an interview for the job and we've reminded the league of that. … We're not saying the teams have to interview those guys, but they do have to fulfill the Rooney Rule."
For all the yawner games ESPN has had on Monday nights this season (St. Louis-Seattle, riveting), the Pittsburgh-San Francisco game next week is about as good as you could possibly imagine. Although San Francisco has already clinched the NFC West and Pittsburgh is one win from clinching a playoff berth, the loser of this game could be in a serious hole the rest of the season. After losing to Arizona, the 49ers are still the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but are tied with New Orleans in terms of record. In other words, one slip could cost the 49ers a critical home game in the second round of the playoffs. If you're San Francisco, the prospect of hosting the Saints is much more appealing than going to New Orleans, where the Saints defense is markedly better inside the dome. As for Pittsburgh, a loss would essentially eliminate any chance of getting home-field advantage in at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-0): Rookie TE Ryan Taylor becomes 14th Packer to score an offensive TD this year. At this rate, fans might get a chance soon.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3): Sorry Steelers fans, but James Harrison deserves that one-game suspension for his hit on Colt McCoy.
3. New England Patriots (10-3): Pats have three games to fix the defense once and for all, but that's probably not enough time.
4. Baltimore Ravens (10-3): Win at San Diego would essentially put the Chargers and Norv Turner out of their collective misery.
5. New Orleans Saints (10-3): Saints could really use the No. 2 seed; home-field advantage for at least one game to help their D.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9): Not sure how or why my Twitter war with Jags fans started, but all five of you need to lighten up.
29. Washington Redskins (4-9): Redskins were 12-20 under Jim Zorn. They are now 10-19 under Mike Shanahan. What a difference.
30. Minnesota Vikings (2-11): Vikings have lost nine games by seven points or less. That bodes well for a bounce back next season.
31. St. Louis Rams (2-11): After Monday night, Rams may not see prime time for another seven decades.
32. Indianapolis Colts (0-13) : In grand scheme of NFL, the $28 million the Colts would have to pay Peyton Manning in March is OK. Do it.
• Nearly every conversation about upcoming coaching vacancies eventually gets to the subject of Andy Reid in Philadelphia. No doubt, Reid is in trouble and you can expect that even if he survives he'll have to jettison a lot of coaches (defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will be one of the first out the door). But, as colleague Michael Silver touched on a couple of weeks ago, one of the important things the Eagles will have to consider about Reid is how he has done with quarterback Michael Vick. Vick has been at his best as a passer under Reid, who has been able to discipline Vick (even if Reid can't discipline too many others). If Vick is to remain in the fold – and his lucrative contract extension in the offseason strongly suggests he will – the Eagles might be wise to bring back Reid.
[ Related: Steve Young tells Brian Urlacher to 'get over it' ]
• Two more lawsuits are expected to be filed soon in the Alabama bingo casino situation. According to three attorneys who are involved in the lawsuits (starting with a $2 million suit filed on behalf of Terrell Owens), as many as 32 current and former NFL players will be suing the Greenberg Traurig law firm for various accusations of failing to properly guide clients in the investment. Jeff Rubin, the former financial planner for numerous athletes, said the operation still hopes to make restitution to the players by the middle of 2012 (although none of the players are expected to actually make money). However, the players are facing a deadline at month's end to file the suits. Among those involved in the casino development are Owens, former linebacker Adalius Thomas, Santana Moss, and Santonio Holmes.
• On the subject of bad financial decisions, NFL owners are considering a proposal this week to aid players in making better investments. The Strategic Investment Fund is being created by the league to allow players to invest in businesses with NFL owners. The proposal is on the agenda for the Wednesday meeting in Irving, Texas. The NFL Players Association is also looking at the proposal before it approves any cooperation between players and owners.
• As colleague Dan Wetzel pointed out Monday, the comments by Pastor Wayne Hanson that the success of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos is "God's favor" are actually no favor to Tebow. However, they are indicative of what the biggest problem so many people have with Tebow mania. The problem is not Tebow himself. Good kid, hard worker, good player, even if his overall skill as a passer is worth debating. The problem regarding Tebow is a lot of his hardcore fans who see his success as an affirmation of his beliefs and, by extension, their beliefs. In short, they're right and the rest of us are wrong. Well, if that were true, then what happened to Danny Wuerrfel, the wonderfully nice, hard-working quarterback who is now a Christian minister? Look, football and religion have much in common. But they are not co-dependent. Otherwise, God would have created football a long time ago and he probably would have done something about concussions.
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- Raheem Morris