By 2008, Ronde Barber's credentials as one of the NFL's top cornerbacks were well-established. So, too, was his friendship with Raheem Morris.
Separated in age by nearly 17 months, the two of them had worked together with the Buccaneers during Barber's fifth-through-ninth NFL seasons (2001-05), a span in which Barber amassed four Pro Bowl selections and was named a First Team All-Pro three times.
Toward the middle of the 2008 season, however, that friendship would be put to the test.
Morris was in his second year as Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach that year after returning in 2007 from his one-season stint as Kansas State's defensive coordinator. Even with Barber still playing at a high level, the Buccaneers drafted another cornerback in the first round in 2008 – Aqib Talib. Then, around Week 6 or 7, according to Barber, Morris was given the uncomfortable responsibility of telling Barber they wanted to start Talib over him.
"It was almost like, 'Are you (expletive) kidding me right now?' It was one of those moments," Barber told theRams.com in a phone interview Thursday, laughing. "The way he handled it, it was – I didn't feel like he was trying to tell me I wasn't a good player anymore, but it was like, 'Hey, this is what we've got to do.' Obviously it was a head coach and (defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin-type of decision, but they put it on him to tell me, who had been an All-Pro a number times and led the league in interceptions a couple of years before. I still felt like I was playing at a high level, and here I am getting ready to get replaced, and the guy delivering the news is probably my best friend in the coaching business."
Even so, Barber said it was a "real" conversation that Morris handled in a mature way and without emotions overpowering the professional side of it. Of course, it only provided more motivation for Barber, who would remain a starter until his retirement following the 2012 campaign and was named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.
More importantly, though, the anecdote illustrates one of the traits Morris will bring to the Rams as their new defensive coordinator – a strong communicator who can connect with players no matter their role or status on the team.
Barber pointed to that moment, or trait, as a reason why Morris has gone on to earn opportunities like this one with the Rams, or previous ones in his career with the Falcons and before that, in Washington with Rams head coach Sean McVay and as the Bucs head coach from 2009-2011.
Those final three seasons in Tampa Bay were particularly formative. At the time, Morris was 32 years old, the youngest head coach in the NFL leading the league's youngest team, but he showed he had the energy to command a room.
"The way that he handled that room was pretty impressive," Barber said. "Now, did he have some missteps along the way? Of course. He really didn't know what the hell he was doing. But he was very convicted in the way that he went about his job, and that will play well for him for the rest of his coaching career. So I think the guys in the (Rams defensive) room are going to notice that right away, his confidence, his energy. Couple that with the ability to communicate and tell them exactly what they're seeing, without mincing words, is going to go a long way for him."
From a scheme standpoint, Barber said that Morris gained experience in a 4-3, stack linebacker defense in Tampa, then in various 3-4 defenses in the opportunities that followed after he left the Bucs. Barber expects Morris will continue to run the hybrid 3-4 scheme Los Angeles currently has, though Morris has proven he can be flexible.
"I remember our second year when he was a head coach, and he took over defensive coordinator duties," Barber said. "He really became like a chameleon. He was able to adjust to a lot of different looks that offenses were giving us. He can have a big playbook, but he also knows how to keep things simple. ... It should be interesting, man. He can't be any more excited to work with 99 (Aaron Donald) and Jalen Ramsey. I mean, you can do almost anything with some of the talent that he has. So I'm looking forward to seeing what it evolves into."