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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Morris' aggressive approach shows confidence

Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:01 AM

The folks back home call it the Irvington Edge. It's a swagger, a savvy that comes from growing up on the streets of Irvington, N.J. Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris hasn't lost it.

You can tell on game days.

Morris always has something special stashed away in what he calls his little bag of tricks. It could be a trick play, a fourth-down call or, as it was last week in Green Bay, an onside kick – or two.

To Morris, who had to fight to survive a few times as a kid growing up in Irvington, the aggressive, no-fear approach he takes to calling a game is his way of showing players he fears no one and will do whatever it takes to win.

"Look, we're a young team,'' Morris said. "(Most of our players are) 22, 23 years old and we've heard it all: you're too young to do this, too young to do that, you didn't buy enough free agents.

"Forget that. We're here to win, and as a coach you never sit back and let your team think you came into this game to play for a tie. You have to show them you're here to win, and so you have to be aggressive, you have to take chances.''

Morris certainly isn't afraid to do that. Go back to opening day. Down by 14 points a series into the second half against Detroit, Morris kicked the Bucs' two-minute offense into gear with 6:16 to play in the third quarter.

A week later, down by 10 points a series into the second half against Minnesota, Morris called for an onside kick. He did the same last week at Green Bay, in the second quarter and again in the fourth.

Clearly, Morris is a coach who doesn't want to give the ball away. Already this season he has tried to convert on fourth down 10 times, eighth-most in the league.

"That's the kind of the mentality we have here now,'' Morris said. "If you go out there and play soft and let them keep the ball and move down the field on you and not feel any fear, you're not dong your job, you're not doing yourself justice.

"And, really, that's the mentality that we've had since (I became coach) here. We want to go out there and throw punches at people first. We don't want to be the punching bag.''

The mentality may have its roots in Irvington, where the crime rate is judged to be about eight times higher than the rest of New Jersey. But it began to blossom on Long Island, on the campus of Hofstra University.

That's where Morris played college football for coach Joe Gardi, who took a similarly aggressive approach to the task of building Hofstra into a Division I-AA power during the 1990s.

Gardi, who took over Hofstra in 1990 when it was a Division III program, didn't believe in playing the role of the underdog, so he saw to it that his teams seldom went into games feeling like they were, Morris said.

"When we played at Hofstra, we believed we were the show,'' Morris said. "That was (Gardi's) term. And when we went out to play, we played with a swagger. We were a Division I-AA team in New York with no fans, but we walked around like we were the New York Jets.''

These young Bucs that Morris will lead into Tennessee to face the Titans today have yet to develop that kind of swagger. Morris is desperately trying to instill it. His aggressive play-calling is one way he's going about it.

As he watched tape of the Green Bay Packers in preparation for last week's game, Morris knew he had to come up with something to even the playing field for his team.

The onside kicks, which were called in an effort to "steal possessions'' from the Packers, were part of that plan. So was the decision Morris made several days before kickoff to play man defense in the secondary.

Against one of the most potent passing teams in the league, playing man seemed like a risk. Most teams, in fact, have chosen to play zone against the Packers this season. But not Morris.

"All that week, I watched (Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers just rip through zones, and so I wanted to figure out a way to counterbalance that,'' Morris said.

"So, I challenged our guys and, yeah, (the Packers) got some big plays off of it, but we made a couple of big plays on third down to get off, too, and we actually got an interception.''

If his players aren't on board with Morris's aggressive risk-reward approach to calling games, they're not admitting it. To a man, the Bucs appear to appreciate the bold attempt to win games any way possible.

"For sure,'' Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said. "Especially when you're playing a team like the Packers, you have to be aggressive like that.''

"It's a confidence booster,'' second-year wide receiver Mike Williams said. "When you go for it on fourth down like we have, you're saying you have confidence in us and that gives you a big boost.''

Bucs general manager Mark Dominik appears to be on board, as well. He heard it all as part of Morris' pitch when he interviewed for the job three years ago, and he doesn't disagree with the philosophy.

"There's good rationale behind the decisions and you do want that (aggressive attitude) to bleed over to your players,'' Dominik said. "Obviously, I like it best, of course, when it works.

"But the reality with the onside kicks, for example, is that we've had three opportunities there (this year) and they've all been fairly well executed. We just haven't delivered on them. But as soon as you do, then your coach is a genius.''

rcummings@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7979