Almost exactly a year ago, as Raheem Morris prepared for the 11th game of his first season as an NFL head coach, I wondered whether he'd be one-and-done with the Buccaneers.
On Sunday afternoon, as Morris rode the team bus to the airport after a 21-0 shutout of the 49ers and looked ahead to the 11th game of his second season with the Bucs, I wondered whether he might be the NFL coach of the year.
Morris didn't want to hear about that, just as he didn't want to be asked about the Bucs' first shutout since 2004 or the fact that his much-maligned rushing defense limited Frank Gore(notes) to 23 yards on 12 carries.
"Stats are for losers," he said by phone after his team improved to 7-3. "The only thing we're trying to do is score one more point than our opponent."
Morris provided some 32Q-style amusement a few weeks ago after he proclaimed that Tampa Bay was the best team in the NFC. Given that the Bucs' victories have come against teams with a combined 17-53 record (if repeat victim Carolina's 1-9 mark is counted twice), there's still plenty of cause for skepticism.
That said, I've been keeping a closer eye on the Bucs, and I really like what I see: Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) is a future star who is already one of the game's clutch performers; players on both sides of the ball seem feisty and motivated and mutually supportive. That's got to be coaching, right?
I suspect Morris made that "best team in the NFC" comment more for his players' benefit than for the rest of ours, a theory I floated to him during our conversation.
"The only people we're concerned with are in our locker room," Morris replied. "Everybody else is gray matter to us. If someone has to be No. 1, why not us? We'll go out and compete with anybody."
Though the Bucs don't have any signature wins, they competed hard in a recent road defeat to the Falcons, and I commend them for not letting down against substandard teams. By contrast, that probably happened in reverse – at least earlier in the season, when the Bucs were still covered in the stench of last year's 3-13 finish.
"I don't know who took us lightly," Morris said. "I know we're becoming a team that's kind of impossible to ignore. That's what we want to be."
Lest we ignore the NFL's other fabulous franchises, here's the quizzical hierarchy that no one takes lightly:
2. New England Patriots: If James Sanders(notes) had guessed wrong on that Peyton Manning(notes) sideline pass with 31 seconds remaining in Sunday's game, how much humble pie would he have eaten before Thanksgiving?
5. Green Bay Packers: In a twist on a local tradition, should the city of Green Bay start naming streets after the coaches who get fired after beat-downs by the Pack (and doesn't Singletary Lane have a nice ring to it)?
10. Indianapolis Colts: Will their shaky running game – and leaky run defense – doom them in the end?
12. Chicago Bears: After baiting ex-Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall(notes) into a taunting penalty last Thursday night, is Jay Cutler(notes) storing material for next year's prospective meeting against Josh McDaniels and the Broncos?
16. Oakland Raiders: If Richard Seymour's(notes) punch to the face of Ben Roethlisberger(notes) was a "natural reaction", could someone kindly remind me not to quickly run up on him in the Oakland locker room?
21. Cleveland Browns: Will Jake Delhomme(notes) get the call against the Panthers – and is it possible to get "revenge" against a 1-9 team with Brian St. Pierre(notes), Jimmy Clausen(notes) and Tony Pike(notes) as its quarterbacks?
22. Dallas Cowboys: Do the people who view Jason Garrett's fast start as a sure-fire sign he'll get a permanent head-coaching gig remember that Jim Haslett also won his first two games as the Rams' interim coach two years ago – before losing his next 10?
24. St. Louis Rams: When I watched Sam Bradford(notes) release that ill-fated pass near the Falcons' goal line last Sunday, why did I keep hearing Joe Pesci ask, "Where are the shovels?" in that classic "Goodfellas" scene?
29. San Francisco 49ers: Is it time to try Justin Smith at quarterback?