Don't tell Tampa Bay it's just a bunch of young Bucs

The best part of being the youngest team in the NFL is having that blissful ignorance about how your inexperience is supposed to limit what you accomplish.

No way can you have a 7-3 record and be only a game out of first in your division entering the stretch run of the season.

No way can your second-year quarterback show his greatest poise when leading fourth-quarter comebacks and your defense pitch shutouts on the road.

To that, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can only say the following: Way.

"They don't know what they're supposed to know, and they're not listening," said 34-year-old Raheem Morris, who appropriately enough, is the NFL's youngest coach. "They don't care who their opponent is, what the naysayers may say. I just don't think they know."

Said rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: "Honestly, we can be as good as we want to be, and it all depends on us. We don't worry about what everybody else does or says. We just go out and play our game."

The young Bucs aren't aware of how surprising it is for them to keep mistakes to a minimum. They rank sixth in the league with a plus-seven turnover ratio and, with 61 penalties, are comfortably below the league average of 64.2 after Week 11.

That has gone a long way toward allowing them to win four of their last five games, including last Sunday's 21-0 triumph at San Francisco. It was their first victory there in 30 years.

The young Bucs, and especially quarterback Josh Freeman, have shown exceptional calm and cool in winning four games by three or fewer points. Among the most impressive of those performances was an 18-17 victory against St. Louis on Oct. 24, when Freeman led the fifth of his six career fourth-quarter rallies and won the game with a 1-yard touchdown pass to running back Cadillac Williams with 10 seconds left.

"Early on, I thought we were cruising along there pretty good the first half and maybe we were playing a team I thought we could beat," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I forget exactly what happened in the second half, but right before our eyes, I think the Buccaneers all of a sudden generated a little bit of confidence. The quarterback got going, the back (rookie LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 72 yards) got going, and I just think, by osmosis, it kind of just grew and the team, since then, just felt very confident in what they're doing.

"I just think Raheem has instilled a bunch of confidence there. They are very young, but they've got some talent and when you've got confidence in what you're doing and how you're playing, you've got a chance to beat anybody."

Here's something else the young Bucs don't know: Practice shouldn't be almost as physical as a game. On teams with more veterans, players and coaches tend to pull back during the week so that they are fresh when it counts. But about four weeks ago in Tampa, a Thursday session in full pads suddenly became highly competitive, with big hits and plenty of aggressiveness. After several minutes, Morris blew his whistle and called his players to the middle of the field.

"This is what Tampa Bay football is about," he told them. "We're in full pads and you guys are like it's Sunday. You're like playing a game."

From then on, each of the Buccaneers' Thursday practices has been filled with spirit and a great deal of contact. Voices are loud and the language is salty. Even the quarterbacks who alternate running the scout-team offense, Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter, talk trash with Morris on the sidelines because he's the defensive coordinator.

"It became a fun practice and they kind of just embraced that environment around here on Thursday and it really just became who we were and it became a part of our core beliefs," Morris said. "It's a beautiful thing for a young football team."

How much contact is there in these workouts? So much that even Blount, a 247-pound wrecking ball of a running back, is a little uneasy about the atmosphere.

"Thursday's my least favorite day, because there's always a chance for somebody to get hurt when you're running into each other," he said. "Everybody has to stay up; we don't want anybody falling on the ground, we don't want anybody rolling. But the practice is always really physical, and we do everything we can to keep everybody healthy."

Nevertheless, in addressing one of the major challenges of coaching a young team -- the ease with which boredom can set in -- Morris makes a concerted effort to bring as much variety to preparation as he can. Sometimes, he will move the start of the morning practice to an earlier time and get them off the field earlier. Other times, he will go with a later start and keep them on the field later.

Morris also likes to move practices away from the Buccaneers' training facility. Among the different sites is Tropicana Field, home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

"When you go to most football teams across the league, you'll see a mundane structure of the way they do things -- where practice is going to be, what time practice is, how it's going to be focused, what we're going to do -- and everything remains the same for 16 straight weeks for the most part on most teams," the coach said. "I'm treating these guys sort of like a college football team, where I can change some things up in how we go about our business. For example, when we go to the West Coast, we have our walk-through in a college stadium, and go through that type of college environment and college life.

"We make them room together on the road and (before) home games, making these guys be around each other and be accountable to each other and waking each other up and getting to the stadium (on time) and doing all the correct things. We try to keep it light, but we also try to keep it right."

With that in mind, Morris and general manager Mark Dominik, realizing that they would be fielding a youthful squad, were mostly careful about the types of players they brought into the fold during the offseason. They targeted those who, Morris said, "had some structure in their lives and fundamental core beliefs of how to behave and how to go about doing business."

"And for the most part, through all the guys we took in our draft and through a lot of the guys that we bring in, whether they're free agents or some type of acquisition from somewhere, we really put them through a rigorous test and a rigorous form of questioning on who they were and what they were," Morris explained. "We looked for military kids. We looked for kids that were captains at their schools. We looked for a bunch of the kids that were leaders in their respective positions, wherever they were, and weeding out some of the guys that wouldn't be able to come in and be able to handle it right away."

McCoy, the third overall choice in the 2010 draft, was a team captain at Oklahoma. Second-year defensive tackle Roy Miller and second-year defensive end Kyle Moore come from military families.

The Buccaneers have taken some risks on character. One was Blount, who made his first NFL start against the 49ers and has emerged as a powerful force that has brought much-needed life to Tampa Bay's running game. The Buccaneers signed Blount in August after he was released by the Tennessee Titans, who had signed him as an undrafted free agent. The former Oregon standout was suspended for 10 games for punching a Boise State player after the 2009 season-opener.

Another character risk was wide receiver Mike Williams, whose six touchdown catches lead the Bucs and 43 receptions give him a share of the team lead with tight end Kellen Winslow. A fourth-round pick from Syracuse, Williams missed all of one collegiate season and part of another because of off-field issues.

Williams already has run into trouble in the NFL, with his arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence two days before the San Francisco game. He played against the 49ers and caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.

"The obvious downside you've got to talk about (with a young team) would be maturity," Morris said. "We had a mistake last week in the news that's well-documented, something that happened that you would like to not have happen to your football team. (Williams is) very sorry and he's very humbled by it, but when you make those mistakes, they're very publicized and it was a great lesson for my football team to get. It was a great way to (learn to) ignore distractions, it was a great way to not let that become something that would tear us down."

The few older players the Buccaneers -- including cornerback Ronde Barber, who is a year older than Morris -- have provided as much leadership as they can. After the San Francisco game, eighth-year veteran center Jeff Faine reminded his teammates that it was only two years ago that the Bucs started 9-3, but then lost their final four games to miss the playoffs.

"Jeff Faine is a great leader," McCoy said. "He always knows the right things to say and when to say them. We are 7-3, and that's a great point to be at right now to be such a young team. But we've got to keep it rolling."

Morris also makes a point to remind players not to allow their exuberance to get the better of them. In the victory against Arizona, the Bucs received a penalty for a choreographed celebration after Moore joined Aqib Talib in the cornerback's celebratory dance after returning an interception for a touchdown.

Even if officials don't call a celebration penalty, they'll usually provide a warning. As Williams celebrated a catch in the San Francisco game, he let go of the ball and the Buccaneers could have been hit with a delay-of-game penalty, a fact Morris pointed out to the receiver and the rest of the team.

"That's obviously the (drawback) to being so young, being so immature, and not having as many veteran leaders as some teams may have," Morris said. "Some of those championship Patriot teams had some big-time, veteran leaders. We had a championship team around here that had big-time veteran leaders in Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks, and we won a Super Bowl. At the same time, a lot of these guys will have a chance to grow into that now, and it really feels good when you see guys start to step up and take on different roles amongst your team."

It feels even better for Morris to see them play with no regard for everyone else's low expectations for them.

"I told these guys to judge themselves on playing fast, playing hard, playing smart, and playing consistent," he said. "And those are the only things they judge themselves on."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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