Raheem Morris's young Bucs spring surprise

No team plunged into the NFL season with lower expectations from the public than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they are now 5-2.

Tampa Bay’s Raheem Morris is the youngest head coach in the league.
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No team plunged into the NFL season with lower expectations from the public than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They went 3-13 a year ago. Encumbered by the massive debt plaguing owner Malcolm Glazer and family, whose toys include an English club of some renown (Manchester United), the Buccaneers had assembled the third-youngest roster in the league. Nearly two dozen players were in their first or second seasons.

The young quarterback, 22, had played nine games. The young coach, 34, was presumed to have been hired on the cheap.

Well, shiver me timbers, the Bucs are 5-2 and tied with Atlanta atop the NFC South. After today's game in the Georgia Dome, coach Raheem Morris's repeated claim that the Bucs have no equal in the conference can be dismissed. Or, with an upset, he can begin shouting it from the highest mountain.

The guy known as "Rah" has taken a rah-rah approach designed to lift his players' confidence.

"This is not trash-talking. It's a mentality," said Morris, borrowing from the playbook of Rex Ryan, the coach of the New York Jets. "It's a mentality before it's a reality. If you don't believe you can win, you probably won't."

Morris's boast is also directed at the diminished Buccaneers fan base. Club management warned that every home game might be blacked out on local television because of empty seats. Their latest home appearance drew 42,000, less than two-thirds of capacity.

It is no surprise that the Bucs are thriving on the road: 3-0 this season, and five consecutive away victories dating to last year.

Josh Freeman, the surprise quarterback of the season, has displayed poise to salvage four wins from fourth-quarter deficits. His low interception rate has helped his team surrender eight fewer turnovers than they have created, a key indicator of NFL success.

Rookies, expected and unforeseen, have contributed. Mike Williams, a receiver, has justified his lofty draft status. LeGarrette Blount, the running back undrafted out of college in part because he sucker-punched a Boise State player, just had a 120-yard game.

On defence, the cornerback Ronde Barber, a year older than his coach, seems to have quaffed from the Bucs' fountain of youth.

Because of Morris's brashness, Tampa Bay have lost the element of surprise today. The Falcons are more than ready for them, having used the coach's bold proclamations as motivational tools.

"Their coach is digging them a big hole, saying that stuff, man," said Roddy White, the receiver. "Best team in the NFC? C'mon."

Truth is, Morris might flunk a lie-detector test on such statements. It does not matter, as long as his players believe him.

Today's top games
• Miami at Baltimore: Who looks forward to playing the mighty Ravens on the road? The Dolphins do. They are 4-0 away from home (and 0-3 in their own stadium). Ten field goals in two games have bailed out Miami's offence, which scored just two touchdowns in those games. The Ravens are ravenous after a bye week, going 7-1 in such circumstances.
• Kansas City at Oakland: Hail to the revival of a classic rivalry fallen on hard times. The teams are ranked 1-2 in rushing; individually, the Raiders' Darren McFadden is seventh, KC's Jamaal Charles eighth. The Chiefs may be worn out from an overtime win over Buffalo. Oakland's last two victories are by a combined 92-17.
• Indianapolis at Philadelphia: The Eagles' revolving door at the QB position has stopped to let out Michael Vick. He missed three weeks with sore ribs. Peyton Manning, above, was masterful against Houston despite a depleted running/receiver corps; Jacob Tamme (who?) caught six balls. Philly are 8-0 after a bye week.

Today's other games
NY Jets at Detroit
New England at Cleveland
San Diego at Houston
Chicago at Buffalo
Arizona at Minnesota
New Orleans at Carolina
NY Giants at Seattle
Dallas at Green Bay
Tomorrow's game
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

Stat of the Week
The Steelers-Saints game last Sunday drew an average of 18.1 million viewers in the US, easily beating the fourth game of baseball's World Series, which was watched by 15.5 million. It is believed be the first time an NFL game won a head-to-head viewership match-up with a World Series game shown in prime time.