Morris Deserves AP Top Honors Tonight

As Super Bowl Week continues from frozen Dallas, several awards are yet to be unveiled for the 2010 season, including the AP NFL Coach of the Year award, which is set to be announced tonight on the NFL Network at 7 pm ET. The Sporting News 2010 Executive of the Year Award has not yet been announced. There’s no doubt there are several execs and head coaches are worthy of consideration. Patriots Bill Belichick took a collection of undersized skill position players (i.e., Danny Woodhead, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, etc etc) and had them playing like titans en route to an impressive 14-2 season. Likewise, Bob Kraft should get credit for an excellent draft in 2010 and in acquiring Branch and Woodhead. Scott Pioli, the Pro Football Weekly/PFWA 2010 NFL Executive of the Year Winner, and Todd Haley are likely in contention for putting together an AFC West worst-to-first squad this year. Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff helped the Falcons take a big step forward this season. Mike Tomlin’s bunch put together a 12-4 regular season and AFC North title without Big Ben for the first four games.

All are significant accomplishments worthy of due recognition, but there are two men who did the best jobs of all given the circumstances: Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik.

What’s most important in the NFL is the win/loss column, and the efforts of Dominik and Morris this season led to a 7-win turnaround in 2010, the largest in the NFL, from a disastrous 3-13 mark. Consider further that they were faced with a triumvirate of potential roadblocks to success. First, they entered 2010 as the second-youngest team in the NFL, with only the Carolina Panthers being younger. We all know how that went for Carolina. Next, the Bucs spent the least amount of money in the NFL this season, approximately $30 million below the floor set under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement. Third, the Bucs suffered a laundry list of injuries. On the season, thirteen players wound up on injured reserve, eight of which were starters and were lost in a span of four weeks. Two others started at least three games.

Yet, the Buccaneers won ten games, the most since 2005. They did it despite playing 10 or more rookies in the last 11 games of the season. An incredible thirteen players were promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster during the season. They became the first team since 2002 to win a game starting 7 or more rookies. They became the first team since the merger to start 10+ rookies and finish with a winning record.

Credit goes first to Mark Dominik for assembling a young, but talent-laden roster through a variety of creative means. Besides being responsible for drafting Josh Freeman (which looks more and more like one of the better moves in a long time for this franchise), Dominik and his scouting department did a stellar job of recognizing talent from the top end of the 2010 draft all the way through. Every single 2010 draftee with the exception of DT Brian Price started at least one game this season. Fourth-round pick Mike Williams, who set the team record for TD catches in a season with 11, would likely win rookie of the year honors most seasons with his output this year. The acquisition of LeGarrette Blount was arguably the coup of the NFL season. Blount rushed for 1005 yards at over 5 yards per carry. Dominik’s selection of free agent offensive linemen Derek Hardman and Ted Larsen ultimately paid dividends. Donald Penn put forth a Pro Bowl season after Dominik inked him to a new deal in late July. Free agent signee Sean Jones significantly upgraded the strong safety position. Clearly, Dominik stocked the roster with talent and quality depth that allowed the team to absorb injuries better than most others.

Despite being faced with a new roster almost every week (43 different starters and 71 active players for the season) Raheem Morris did a masterful job with taking new players with different skill sets and getting the most out of them. On the defensive line, as Brian Price, Gerald McCoy, and Ryan Moore departed with injury, Al Woods, Frank Okam, Alex Magee, and Michael Bennett worked their way into the rotation. Ted Larsen, Derek Hardman, and James Lee stepped into starting roles on the offensive line. The free safety position became a revolving door. Yet, Raheem did his best impression of a mad scientist for much of the season, moving players around and getting the most out of their strengths and abilities. He split time between Adam Hayward and Dekoda Watson at strongside linebacker based on their respective strengths. At the end of the day, despite all the youth and injuries, his team achieved his proclamation of 10 wins and shed the “can’t beat a good team” mantra by defeating the defending world champion Saints on the road with a patchwork roster.

When I asked him if it was any silver lining that his team beat a winning team to reach double digit wins, he bluntly replied to me that it was “mentally weak” line of thinking. That’s the sign of a guy who gets it in this league: that moral victories don’t matter, but actual ones do. Even though his team came up short of the playoffs, no coach produced more victories from the previous season than Morris did.

Let’s see if the rest of the league gets it tonight.

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