Jobs on the line for members of losing teams

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As someone who has tasted victory only once in his NFL coaching career, Raheem Morris has become well-versed in the art of turning turkey gizzards into awesome Thanksgiving leftovers, or whatever Holiday of Engorgement food analogy you prefer.

Morris was named head coach after serving as the DB coach last season.
(Scott A. Miller/US Presswire)

On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ rookie coach was asked at the end of a news conference what his 1-9 team is playing for over the final six games, beginning with Sunday’s road clash against the Atlanta Falcons. Morris revved up the positive spin machine so fiercely, he was soon setting his sights on achieving the longest regular-season winning streak in NFL history.

“We’re playing to get better,” Morris told reporters in Tampa. “We talked about it yesterday – we’re playing to progress. You’ve got to go out there and try to progress every day and we’re trying to play better. One day we want to be in a situation to come out of that bye and say, ‘We need three games to get to the playoffs. We need four games to lock up the division. We need two games to lock up the NFC. We need eight games to go undefeated and beat the Patriots’ record.’

“Whatever the case may be, we want to be saying that coming out of the bye week one time and we want to have a plan, want to have direction and want to know how to finish strong. That’s all this is a preparation for.”

It’s not impossible that Morris, 33, will realize those lofty goals some day, or at least turn the flailing Bucs into a winner more rapidly than any of us expects. But I’ve got news for him: The Bucs are playing for more than direction and learning how to finish strong.

From what I can see, they may be playing for Morris’ job.

On Tuesday, Morris announced that he had relieved defensive coordinator Jim Bates of his duties and would now take charge of the defense – the second time he had gotten rid of a coordinator in three months. Former offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski – who, like Bates, was hired by Morris and first-year general manager Mark Dominik – was fired 10 days before the start of the regular season.

During his rookie year Morris has also benched two quarterbacks, reportedly engaged in a profanity-laced shouting match with curfew-breaking cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) in a London hotel lobby and trotted out a largely overmatched team to an increasingly disengaged fan base.

Logic suggests that the Bucs’ owners, Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer, will give Morris at least another year to prove himself, especially given their role (via a sudden cessation of aggressive spending) in the team’s demise and the recent promise displayed by rookie quarterback Josh Freeman(notes).

Yet the Glazers have behaved impulsively in the past – firing Tony Dungy after three consecutive playoff seasons, shamelessly wooing Bill Parcells while Dungy was still employed, reneging on general manager Rich McKay’s handshake deal to hire Marvin Lewis and instead making a blockbuster trade for Jon Gruden.

Besides, a disastrous year in today’s NFL can derail the most diligent of long-range plans. Just ask Cam Cameron, who was fired after going 1-15 in 2007, his sole season as the Miami Dolphins’ coach.

It could happen to Morris, especially with big-name coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren in play. Dominik, too, could be pushed aside at the whim of a newly hired powerbroker.

If the Bucs want to ensure that the current regime sticks around, they’ll need to show some improvement over the final six games – not only in terms of the bottom line (winning a game or three would be nice) but also in terms of creating the impression that Morris’ approach is yielding tangible results.

Come to think of it, maybe they are playing to progress.

While we’re at it, let’s look at the other NFL teams that have no realistic hope of making the playoffs this season – the ones that are 3-7 or worse – and assess what they’ve got to play for between now and the first Sunday in January:

St. Louis Rams: Despite their 1-9 record, the Rams have shown signs of life lately and seem to be playing hard for first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo. Now that longtime quarterback Marc Bulger(notes) could miss the rest of the season with a fractured shinbone and may well have played his last game with the franchise, veteran Kyle Boller(notes) has a chance to make a case that he should go into next year as the team’s starter. It’s a longshot, but if Boller plays well and pulls off a couple of upsets, he could at least go into next season with an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

Cleveland Browns: Owner Randy Lerner is all over the place: Firing first-year general manager George Kokinis, ostensibly for cause; meeting with a pair of fans to discuss the team’s deficiencies; grooming former Browns QB Bernie Kosar as a future GM; pledging allegiance to current coach Eric Mangini; lusting over Holmgren as a potential “football czar”. No one has a clue how this bizarre situation will play out, but whoever ends up running the team in 2010 needs to know whether there’s a legitimate starting quarterback on the roster. At this point it seems pretty clear that Derek Anderson(notes) isn’t, but third-year passer Brady Quinn(notes) is coming off what was by far the most impressive game of his three-year career, and these final six weeks should be used to evaluate whether he has a chance to be The Guy.

Detroit Lions: In the same game in which Quinn shined last Sunday, Lions rookie Matthew Stafford(notes) had an even more impressive outing, demonstrating proficiency and toughness in leading the team to its second victory of the season. That’s good news for rookie coach Jim Schwartz, who after inheriting the league’s most hideous mess has likely demonstrated enough promise to his bosses to justify another roster makeover after this season. The Lions will build around Stafford on offense, but Schwartz, a defensive wizard, will need some studs on the other side of the ball. Over the final six weeks, most of the current Lions defenders will be playing for their roster spots.

Buffalo Bills: This team already made a coaching change, getting rid of Dick Jauron last week and replacing him with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. The interim coach seemed to give the 3-7 Bills a spark in their 18-15 defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but owner Ralph Wilson clearly has the wandering eye: There has already been a meeting with Shanahan, and numerous other candidates to coach the team in 2010 have been mentioned in various reports. That doesn’t mean Fewell couldn’t pull a Mike Singletary and win enough games to convince his bosses to hire him on a permanent basis, but it may not matter if Wilson can successfully woo one of the heavy hitters. In the meantime, Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) has a slight chance to emerge as the franchise’s unlikely quarterback of the future while standout rookie safety Jairus Byrd(notes) grows into his role as the team’s defensive centerpiece.

Washington Redskins: Second-year coach Jim Zorn has already been emasculated, and even a season-ending six-game winning streak (which would leave the ‘Skins at 9-7) likely wouldn’t be enough to save his job. Owner Dan Snyder is thinking big, which may or may not be bad news for his longtime right-hand man, vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato. Like Zorn, quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) is probably a goner no matter what happens from here on out, and there are numerous other players on the roster in that category. Yet there’s still a lot of talent here for the next regime to build around, and the players who tank the final six games of ’09 almost certainly won’t be part of it. And while working for Snyder can be tough on coaches, most ‘Skins players will tell you this isn’t a bad place to be.

Kansas City Chiefs: First-year general manager Scott Pioli and the rookie coach he hired, Todd Haley, are a lot alike: They’re demanding, supremely confident and used to winning. Their relationship may have been tested during an offseason of upheaval and the team’s 1-7 first-half record, but now K.C. has won two in a row, most recently an upset of the defending champion Steelers, and Pioli and Haley can peer into a potentially fruitful future. There’s enough invested in quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) to make his status as the unquestioned starter reasonably safe heading into 2010, but virtually everyone else’s job could be in jeopardy if his performance falters down the stretch. The Chiefs, to me, seem like the kind of team that could parlay some strong late-season performances into a fast start the following year, which is another reason Haley will push them as hard as he can between now and January.

Mora’s ‘Hawks have lost four of their last five games.
(Rick Scuteri/US Presswire)

Seattle Seahawks: Jimmy Mora spent a year as Mike Holmgren’s designated heir, then took over a team that was lousier than he or anyone else realized. The 3-7 Seahawks have been as victimized by injuries to key players as any team in the league, and Gregg Knapp’s offense has been hamstrung by the startling decline of a formerly dominant offensive line. Mora will be under a lot of pressure to show improvement in 2010, and there are rumors that general manager Tim Ruskell might be gone come January, possibly as part of a Holmgren homecoming as the new front-office chieftain. Whatever goes down, Mora needs to instill confidence that he’s capable of producing a quick turnaround, and the best way to do that is to showcase some of the franchise’s younger players over the final six games and demonstrate that they’re improving.

Oakland Raiders: I have my theories, but really, who knows? Tom Cable, who as an interim coach in ’08 rode a late-season victory over the Buccaneers to the NFL Job Nobody Wants, is a longshot to return in 2010, as much because of this team’s offensive ineptitude as the off-field drama in which he has been involved. Al Davis could try to fire Cable for cause – or he could put his arm around the young man and take him up in a glass elevator that crashes through the roof of the team’s training facility, Willy Wonka-style. Again, who knows? When Bruce Gradkowski(notes) took over for JaMarcus Russell(notes) last Sunday and the Raiders won their third game by upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals, it gave Cable a convenient scapegoat for the team’s offensive woes: JaMarcus. Unfortunately for Cable, Davis was the reason the franchise drafted Russell first overall in’07 and loves the portly passer like a white, nylon sweatsuit on a hot day. Cable can try to convince his players they have something to play for over the rest of the season, but I suspect that none of it matters: Chances are Davis will bring in someone else a few months from now and the cycle will begin anew.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Texans will save their season – and end Indy’s bid for an undefeated campaign – by pulling off the upset in Houston on Sunday. … The Pittsburgh Steelers will show their championship mettle once more in a road victory over the Baltimore Ravens. … The New Orleans Saints won’t give Bill Belichick a chance to make a controversial call, because they’ll open up a big lead on the Pats at the Superdome and hang on for a wire-to-wire victory Monday night.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Chicago, where I can hang out with a recuperating friend who can teach me a hell of a lot about football and thoroughly entertain in the process. (I’ll explain in Monday’s column.)

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Impressed by the apparent exuberance of Jerome Boger at the end of the Titans’ victory over the Texans on Monday night, Borat Sagdiyev applied for a job as an NFL referee.

2. I don’t know how I survived all the empty Thanksgivings before this one without getting dish-by-dish microblogging updates from athletes about their massive meals.

3. After Peyton Manning(notes) was listed on Indy’s injury report with a sore backside, scores of television analysts showed up at the team’s facility offering to massage it back to health.

WORLD’S SIMPLEST POOL

For the first time since the season opener, when a late Leodis McKelvin(notes) fumble saved me from an ignominious exit, I really had to sweat out a result last Sunday. Trailing 6-0, the Cowboys finally pulled ahead of the Redskins with 2:41 remaining and held on for a victory, allowing me to survive into Week 12. Like the Colts and Saints, I can now harbor legitimate dreams of a perfect regular season. Unlike those teams, I get to pick on the Browns (again): I’m going with the ticked-off Bengals to put it on Mangini’s beleaguered bunch in a cross-state blowout Sunday. Have at it, boys. (Off limits: Patriots, Redskins, Ravens, Texans, Eagles, Packers, Colts, Bears, Falcons, Vikings, Cowboys.)

MY BUDDIES’ ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

So much for my hunches about Antonio Bryant(notes) and Greg Olsen(notes) – they probably doomed UCSB women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s Harsh Reality to a 10-point defeat last week. Battling a Hurricanes squad that got strong performances from Sidney Rice(notes), Mike Sims-Walker(notes) and Carolina’s Steve Smith, Harsh Reality made it close thanks to Greg Jennings’(notes) long-awaited breakout game and a nice outing from Carson Palmer(notes). Had Gottlieb played Terrell Owens(notes) and Vernon Davis(notes) instead of Bryant and Olsen, she likely would have won. My bad. “I’m through with Greg Olsen,” Gottlieb says, undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of many Bears fans.

Now 6-5 and sitting in sixth place in the 12-team league, Harsh Reality has another tough matchup this week, facing a 7-4 Punt Blockers lineup that features Matt Ryan(notes), Pierre Thomas(notes), Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Andre Johnson(notes), Miles Austin(notes), Hines Ward(notes) and Visanthe Shiancoe(notes). Our adjustments: On my advice, Gottlieb claimed the Rams’ suddenly relevant rookie wideout Brandon Gibson(notes), though she’s sitting him this week (instead going with Jennings, Chad Ochocinco(notes) and Owens); and she picked up the Falcons defense (which faces the Bucs), waiving both the Titans and Cardinals.

Just for the hell of it, I put in a waiver claim for Gibson on behalf of my buddy Malibu’s last-place Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which fell to 2-9 despite a big game from newly acquired tight end Kevin Boss(notes). I also put in claims for Mohamed Massaquoi(notes) and Kris Brown(notes) (like Texans coach Gary Kubiak, I still have faith in the embattled kicker), none of which will likely help Sabbath defeat 11th-place Bangas. On a more promising note, Malibu’s son A-Man continues to roll despite season-ending injuries to Owen Daniels(notes) and Ronnie Brown(notes). A-Man’s first-place team, Man Up Willis U …, won its seventh consecutive game behind strong efforts from Eli Manning(notes) and Laurence Maroney(notes) and will try to keep it rolling against Team 420 (Philip Rivers(notes), Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Mike Bell(notes), Calvin Johnson(notes), Derrick Mason(notes), Santonio Holmes(notes), Davone Bess(notes), Benjamin Watson(notes)).

As always, Y! Sports guru Brad Evans is here to tell us what it all means:

Before Harsh Reality drops Olsen and every other Bear not named Hester into the deep fryer, a wise word: Minnesota has been one of fantasy’s friendliest defenses to tight ends. So far this season, the Norsemen have surrendered seven touchdowns along with 6 receptions and 66.2 yards per game to oversized targets, equal to the second-most fantasy points allowed. Yes, Jay Cutler(notes) could overthrow Jupiter on a simple downfield post right now, but with the Bears’ defense struggling, he will be provided numerous opportunities to square up his tight end in Minneapolis. The maligned Olsen along with Coach Gottlieb’s remaining cheerless band of underachievers should put up a tough fight this week versus the Punt Blockers. Jennings, Ochocinco, and especially T.O., could be the difference.

Silver’s recommendation of Gibson is fair advice for teams with obvious bench deficiencies. But until the youngster learns to run smoother routes and conquers the devastating effects of butter hands (17 targets, 5 catches, numerous drops last week), he will post mediocre returns, especially with Kyle Boller at the helm. Mike, you of all people should know the Cal grad is actually part-JaMarcus, part-turkey. The guy was cooked years ago. But for his libido’s sake, he’s at least still nabbing the babes, albeit the annoying ones.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Is it any wonder that proven winners like Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren will be in high demand as teams search for new coaches over the next couple of months? Each man has a strong track record of success – and none of these guys will be bumping into walls while learning on the job. Is it just me, or have you noticed that several of the first-time coaches this season have seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience? I talked about Morris earlier; I told you about Josh McDaniels on Monday; we could talk about Rex Ryan all night. (Cliff’s Notes version: In the last two weeks alone, he got rid of his defensive line coach, complained that a future Hall of Fame coach he’d called out before the season “disrespected” him by throwing late with a big lead and announced he’d now be assuming a greater role in running the team’s offense). Cowher, Shanahan and Holmgren, along with Brian Billick and Bill Parcells (and Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy, should they decide to give up their sweet broadcast gigs) will command big salaries, but you get what you pay for – and you won’t get awkward growing pains. Then again, 10 games into his career as an NFL head coach, Jim Caldwell seems like an old pro.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

The Stanford fans who attended the 112th Big Game at Stanford Stadium last Saturday. No, that is not a misprint, and yes, this is Cal’s most shameless propagandist talking. What can I say? I like to tweak Stanford’s athletic supporters for not showing up, sitting on their hands and pretending they’re not really investing themselves in the outcome unless they’re winning big, but that wasn’t the case last Saturday. It was the loudest, most engaged Stanford crowd I’ve seen since 1982 in Berkeley (you know, the game that ended like this). Even as Cal seemed to take over the game in the second half – and our crowd, predictably, began to act as though we owned the joint – Stanford’s fans stayed loud and hopeful and were rewarded with an inspired push to the finish. For the first time, I understood the beauty of the new, compact stadium, and it was great to be part of a back-and-forth affair that both fan bases desperately wanted to go their way. So yes, I’ll continue to tweak Stanford fans, but I definitely respect them more than I did a week ago, and I look forward to seeing many of them at California Memorial Stadium next year. Now, if Stanford could just do something about that insufferable P.A. announcer …

DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR

Other than the fact that my friends devoured alcoholic beverages after Cal’s 34-28 victory over Stanford last Saturday like it was the Fourth of July on Coney Island and beers were hot dogs, it’s tough to find a Nathan’s tie-in to the Big Game. Against all odds, Cal sophomore kicker David Seawright did – but even after reveling in the gluttony of Axe-retention, our young correspondent saved room for a big-picture homage to the power of college sports. (As for the reference to the attire of the current Secretary of State, remember her daughter’s regrettable choice of colleges.)

Have you ever had an international eating-contest champion ask you for your autograph …? As of Saturday, I have.

Joey Chestnut was conveniently seated right by our kicking net and, in his stupor (and despite the fact that his girlfriend was wearing a Stanford sweatshirt), developed an infatuation for yours truly that extended through the entire second quarter.

On most days, a humorous incident such as this would come out as a highlight. On a day that we beat our rival 34-28 on a late-game, goal-line interception that silenced talks of a Cardinal Rose Bowl berth and kept The Axe in Berkeley for another year, I found other reasons to boast.

The Cal faithful stood loud and proud amid the Hillary-Clinton-style-dress-suit-wearing Stanford faithful (honestly, to a football game?) and dominated the crowd noise much like we dominated the time of possession (39:06 to 20:54).

And Tiger Woods, an athlete known for performing under pressure, stumbled over his words because of the bold boos of Bear fans – some even chanted, “college drop out” at the world’s best golfer – while we proved the words he did manage to enunciate – “the second half is ours” – wrong.

But not all is boast-worthy in Berkeley. While the Cal drinking song echoed through Palo Alto, Calif, on Saturday evening, many of the 26 other varsity sports in Berkeley may soon lack the opportunity to dishearten the Cardinal as we did.

With impending budget cuts, the UC faculty voted earlier this month to cease university funding for the department of athletics. Although they might have reached judgment too quickly, the statement from the faculty was clear: intercollegiate athletics are not valuable to the Cal campus.

After Saturday, however, I hope they reconsider. In a largely divisive week, ripe with protests on campus that required police action and garnered national news coverage, it was through sport that the campus came together for a single cause: an impassioned hate for all things red.

Intercollegiate athletics are of immense value to our campus and other campuses across the country. Athletes and non-athletes alike are educated daily on the values of commitment, hard work and loyalty, which doesn’t even begin to touch on the immeasurable value of image and branding our university receives through athletic accomplishment.

If for no other reason, each of Cal’s 27 sports must survive so that the victories over our Bay Area rival keep rolling in.

And while I may speak from the bias of an athlete, thousands of Cal students and alumni made their voices heard on the issue this past weekend. Just ask Tiger.

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

The Reading Football Club finally gave its fans reason to go mad last Saturday, scoring a dramatic victory over Blackpool that lifted the Royals above the relegation line and gave them their first win at Madejski Stadium in nine games this season. Deployed in a more aggressive 4-3-3 formation by manager Brendan Rodgers, Reading struck first seven minutes after halftime when Gylfi Sigurdsson stroked home Jobi McAnuff’s cross for his third goal in a week. Brett Ormerod equalized for the Tangerines six minutes later, but the Royals won it in the 83rd minute when Marek Matejovsky launched a gorgeous cross from the left wing and Grzegorz Rasiak ran through on the far post and headed it into the net. A hearty celebration ensued, foreshadowing this one across the pond, and Reading improved to 20th in the Football League Championship table – in a virtual tie with 19th place Derby County, the Royals’ opponent Saturday at Pride Park.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Now is a great time to be Cowher, who over the next two months should have no shortage of suitors eager to increase his personal fortune. Offered an opportunity to become Bills coach, Cowher reportedly told owner Ralph Wilson to chill, and with good reason: The more coaches who bite the dust, the better the bidding war. I expect Cowher to sing this tune until January arrives and the big bucks start flowing (to Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends”):

Season is getting tired
Many coaches will soon get fired
Wake me up when December ends

Rest is nice but I like cash
These three years have gone so fast
Wake me up when December ends

There goes John Fox again
Falling with Delhomme
Mangini sucks again
Lerner pick up the phone

Jim Zorn can’t buy a win
But Snyder, bless him, wants this chin?
Wake me up when December ends

Kubiak’s time has passed?
Yo Bob McNair we’ll have a blast
Wake me up when December ends

Who runs Da Bears again?
I’ll make Cutler like Big Ben
Wake me up when December ends

Here comes that private jet
Whisking me away
Not time to fly just yet
Someone will overpay

Watching your team regress
Don’t ever forget what I’ve won
Wake me up when December ends

Season has gone so fast
So many coaches will get axed
Wake me up when December ends

Roethlisberger throws a pass
Just sign the checks I’ll kick his ass
Wake me up when December ends
Wake me up when December ends
Wake me up when December ends

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Nov 27, 2009