Raheem Morris is 4-2 as the interim head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. That is about the only thing you can say with any certainty about him and this team at the moment, given the very real state of flux that they exist in. We’ve heard virtually nothing about who the team is looking at for head coaching candidates in 2021, Morris’s fingerprints on the defense during their 0-5 start complicates the success he and Jeff Ulbrich have had in the last six games, and we’re genuinely unsure whether the Falcons have it in them to reel off some impressive wins down the stretch or whether they’ll hit a wall against three of thee most complete teams they’ve faced all year in the Saints (again), Buccaneers (twice), and Chiefs.
All of that invites speculation about where the team is going in the here and now and whether Morris has a legitimate shot to keep the head coach job in 2021. Jeff Schultz at The Athletic wrote a piece rounding up the reasons to think that Morris is A) doing a good job at the moment and B) not necessarily a strong candidate to stick in the job. It’s worth reading, but I’ve rounded a couple of highlights below.
- Being an interim is difficult. To say Morris was thrust into an impossible situation would not be an understatement. The Falcons were 0-5 and essentially dead in the water, he was saddled with an offensive coordinator who has proven to be not up to the task, and the defense was a huge mess. The fact that Morris and Ulbrich have coaxed improvement out of the defense that they couldn’t get in the first five games is as impressive as it is infuriating, but I lean more toward the former given how quickly Morris had to come in and try to restore some structure after watching his good friend get fired.
“I had about two hours,” he said. “You get in front of the team. You get a chance for your friend, Dan Quinn, to say goodbye to the team and turn over the reins to myself. Then you just have to flat-out be honest with the guys and tell them the truth, that we had failed that man miserably through the first five games. I asked the guys to let me lead them. I told them when they come back on Wednesday to be ready to deal.”
I think Arthur Blank’s somewhat glib comments about Morris getting the job if he got the team to 11-5, even if he later walked those back, revealed how insurmountable the job of climbing back into contention really was. It’s not clear, as Schultz repeatedly notes in his piece, that the Falcons are taking Morris’s candidacy particularly seriously, even if he’s clearly shown leadership and adaptability the team had been lacking.
- The Falcons are tired of being burned by trust. Going beyond the impossibility of the task for Morris, there’s the simple fact that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay just watched the decision to keep the coaching staff intact after 2019 blow up spectacularly. Atlanta’s “we can fix this, we have the right people” moves have repeatedly failed in the last couple of years, from the ill-fated Giorgio Tavecchio experiment to Vic Beasley’s fifth year option to deciding that a 6-2 finish in 2019 was an indicator of what would be to come in 2020. With some cap navigation to come, a new general manager set to be hired, and plenty of questions about personnel to deal with in the spring, the team is likely to be wary of trusting, say, a 7-4 finish featuring a head coach who was heavily involved in the defense that had them stinking out loud over the first five games.
- Will a new GM want their own hand-picked coach? As Schultz notes, it’s no longer a given that the Falcons will hire a general manager first and let that person hire their own coach. It also seems very unlikely, however, that the team would let Morris pick his own GM if he was retained, and the Falcons will want to land a strong candidate for the role who will wield significant power in the organization. Candidates will also likely already be wary of McKay’s outsized influence in the organization to begin with, a potential complicating factor for experienced guys like Rick Smith and Reggie McKenzie.
The Falcons could hire someone who likes and respects Morris and would prefer he stays on as the coach, but more likely the kind of GM the Falcons will want to hands the keys to the franchise to will have their own preferred candidates in mind. Morris could do exceptionally well the rest of the way and still fall victim to that simple fact.
Considering all of this, it’s fair to say we don’t really know anything about the team’s plans for Morris or any magical cutoff point at which he’ll go from interim to the head coach in 2021 and beyond. That’s a difficult backdrop for a coach primed for another head coaching gig to work within, but Morris has the Falcons playing better football (outside of the offense, and we’ve beat that horse into jelly), and seems clear-eyed about what he can and can’t control.
“I definitely have the 1-0 mentality. The only thing I can tell you about giving somebody an honest shot, just in life, is what they do for me on a daily basis, and all I’m given is the utmost support from the highest level of the organization to the lowest level of the organization. If somewhere in between you have a bunch of people trying to do a bunch of things to get the 1-0 mentality, that’s how you know how much support you’re getting.”