ATLANTA (AP) – Raheem Morris is ready to start the offseason and help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turn things around.
Whether he will get that chance remains to be seen.
Dropping their season finale 45-24 to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Bucs closed the year with 10 straight losses – the franchise’s worst in-season stretch since the 1977 team lost its first 12 games.
Morris, though, isn’t planning for Monday to be any different from the day that followed last year’s encouraging 10-6 finish that left Tampa Bay barely out of the playoffs.
“If I was in the business of worrying about my future, I wouldn’t be coaching,” the third-year coach said. “I’m going to go to work tomorrow. It’s not the time to talk about that type of stuff. That’s for mental midgets. For us, we’ve got to go out and play football and do what we have to do.”
Center Jeff Faine indicated that Morris’ postgame speech made no mention of the meltdown that began with the Bucs trailing 42-0 in the second quarter. Instead, the focus of his talk was to encourage players to dedicate themselves in the offseason.
As the NFL’s second-youngest team, the Bucs (4-12) might have not handled last year’s NFL lockout as well as an experienced club, but Tampa Bay still managed a 4-2 start that included an emotional 16-13 win over Atlanta. That Week 3 victory ended a five-game series losing streak that gave quarterback Josh Freeman his first win over the Falcons.
But this time, Freeman threw a first-quarter interception to Dominique Franks that set up Julio Jones’ 48-yard touchdown catch on the next play to put the Bucs in a 21-0 hole.
Tampa Bay ran four plays on the ensuing possession before defensive end John Abraham sacked Freeman and stripped the ball away for a fumble recovery. Michael Turner’s 1-yard run six snaps later made it 28-0.
Freeman’s next drive ended with linebacker Curtis Lofton picking him off and running the ball back for 35-0 lead.
“It’s always tough when you fall behind and fall behind early,” Freeman said. “Today was no different. You have to, as an offense, find a way to keep the game close. Early turnovers don’t allow you to do that. They capitalized on every single turnover and with that, you aren’t always going to win football games.”
When Tampa Bay struggled badly in Morris’ first season of 2009, the Bucs still had a reputation for playing hard despite their 1-12 start.
But they won 16 of their next 25 and seemed ready to challenge New Orleans and Atlanta for supremacy in the NFC South.
Everything began to unravel, however, after they beat the Saints 26-20 on Oct. 16. They lost their next 10 – the franchise’s worst stretch since the 2008-09 teams combined to drop 11 straight.
Sunday marked the seventh loss this season by 16 or more points.
“The team was prepared to play today,” Morris said. “We got outplayed by a better football team. They went out there and played hard, got out of the box quickly and we couldn’t tackle them. That’s an issue, and when that snowballed and got away from us and went back and refocused and played a little bit better in the second half, it wasn’t good enough.”
Tampa Bay’s defense struggled fundamentally and trailed 42-7 at halftime after allowing 186 yards rushing and 133 passing.
“It boils down to guys not doing their jobs, and it all goes from there,” linebacker Geno Hayes said. “If everyone isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it doesn’t work. We get paid to a job, and it hasn’t been working.”
Cornerback Elbert Mack returned an interception of Atlanta backup quarterback Chris Redman for 40-yard touchdown to make it 42-18 late in the third quarter, and the Bucs went on to score 24 unanswered points against a Falcons team made up mostly of reserves.
But the effort wasn’t nearly enough.
“You’ve got to start fast in this league,” Mack said. “We didn’t execute what the coaches have been preaching all week.”
Morris hopes he gets a chance to keep coaching these players next season.
“There will be a 10 a.m. meeting, there’ll be another one at 11 and there will be a noon press conference and I’ll see you there,” Morris said. “I’ll go to the Outback Bowl in the afternoon. I’ll come back and do a radio show and be ready to deal, ready for this offseason and get back and attack it.”
Morris was then asked if he expects to coach the 2012 Bucs.
“That’s like asking you if you expect to be a work tomorrow,” he said. “Correct.”