This decade’s greatest show on turf. America’s new favorite team. Atlanta’s first real dominant team since the late 1990’s Braves. There were many phrases to describe the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.
Although it took some time, an offensive juggernaut eventually emerged and terrorized the league. A young, ultra-fast defense was developing across all three levels. It was an exceptional group of players and coaches to form what should have been a championship team. Unfortunately, they were on the receiving end of the cruelest collapse in NFL history.
Five years later, two notable figures from that team have a chance to get what they deserve. Raheem Morris was primarily the wide receivers coach, along with handling assistant coach and passing game coordinator duties. Ricardo Allen was the starting free safety who blossomed into the main communicator and organizer of the defense.
Both were pivotal in the team’s overall success in building a genuine Super Bowl contender in 2016 and 2017. Morris and Allen were together with the Falcons from 2015 to 2020. They are now on opposite sides, as Morris is the Rams’ defensive coordinator and Allen is a backup safety for the Bengals. They’ve both had quite the journey to get where they are today.
Taking on all challenges
Learning from his mentor Mike Tomlin, Morris always remained focused on being a leader. As important as it is to construct pressure designs and coverage disguises to make quarterbacks uncomfortable, the fiery coach knew he had to make sure his players were behind him. The way he supported, taught, and uplifted players was going to be vital for his overall growth as a coach, and still is.
After bursting onto the scene in the late 2000s with Tampa Bay, Morris had to build his reputation, and his acumen back up after a dismal 2011 season led to him being fired as Tampa Bay’s head coach. A solid stint in Washington led to new Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn bringing him in as the defensive backs coach to assemble his coaching staff in 2015.
What caught most by surprise was Morris getting away from his defensive roots and working on the offensive side of the ball in 2016. After a shaky first season, Kyle Shanahan’s offense needed to make some changes. Quinn decided to shift Morris from coaching the defensive backs to coaching the wide receivers. Morris’ wide receiver group developed into a dynamic, well-constructed unit filled with explosive playmakers and hard-nosed players.
Julio Jones was in the midst of his prime as the best wide receiver in the league. The signing of Mohamed Sanu gave them the physicality and versatility they needed from a number two receiver. Taylor Gabriel’s emergence was one of the biggest highlights of the season.
How Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson found their respective niches, with Hardy as the strong blocking, reliably handed receiver, and Robinson as the valuable deep threat. is a testament to how Morris and Shanahan were able to utilize them effectively.
It was an absolute joy for everyone to watch the offense fire on all cylinders. Although Shanahan moved on to become the head coach of the 49ers in 2017, Morris stayed committed to the Falcons. Morris then continued doing what he always did in his career: He took on new challenges. Quinn’s defense was getting embarrassed nearly every week in 2019.
It got to the point where he couldn’t be responsible for calling plays anymore. If Quinn didn’t align Morris and Jeff Ulbrich together to call plays, Arthur Blank would have likely fired him in November 2019. It was time for Morris to get back to his bread-and-butter as a defensive coach.
The mid-season move from coaching wide receivers and working with Dirk Koetter to handling defensive playcalling duties with Jeff Ulbrich proved to be a shrewd decision. The Falcons’ defense played significantly better in the second half of the season.
Despite that success not transitioning over into 2020, which ultimately led to Quinn being fired, Morris took over as interim coach and did a commendable job. To win three out of his first four games after the team started 0-5 showed his capabilities as a head coach. Players respected him, fought for him, and wanted to evolve under his leadership.
That led to Morris being where he is today. The ultimate players’ coach teamed up with one of the NFL’s premier offensive masterminds in Sean McVay. Morris worked wonders with an undermanned, often overmatched Falcons’ defense. He earned his spot to coach one of the top defenses in the league. As Jalen Ramsey emphatically stated in a recent interview, he brings the best out of players.
In the process of getting back to the Super Bowl, multiple teams have interviewed him to be their new head coach. Morris will likely get another opportunity to be a head coach again, as long as team owners start giving black coaches more opportunities and put them in better positions to succeed.
No matter what the future holds for Morris, a Super Bowl trophy would be incredibly gratifying in what has already been a memorable coaching career, one where he’ll hopefully get a real shot at being a head coach again in 2023.
Perseverance is everything when defying the odds
There wasn’t much expectation for an undersized cornerback coming out of Purdue in 2014. Mike Smith didn’t see much in Allen, which led to him being cut, although he was brought back to be on the practice squad. To make the transition to free safety and earn the starting job was an impressive feat for Allen in 2015.
At the time, it was more viewed as how rough of a state the Falcons’ defense was in more than Allen actually proving to be a starting-caliber safety. The defense was rebuilding in Quinn’s first season. Allen was a steady presence yet truly never shined in the new role.
Most expected him to be replaced in 2016. Instead of being pushed aside, Allen became one of the more influential defensive players on a Super Bowl team. On a young defense in need of a powerful voice, Allen became that player on every down. His chemistry with Keanu Neal was beautiful to watch.
Intercepting Rusell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back playoff games was a crowning moment for the resilient free safety. Allen was establishing himself as a legitimate deep-lying free safety alongside one of the hardest-hitting strong safeties in the league.
He took his game to the next level in 2017 and earned a long-term contract extension. Quinn made it known how much of a mentor he was in the locker room. The combination of being a great leader, having a high football IQ, and working relentlessly hard pushed Allen into becoming a beloved figure in Atlanta.
He always took accountability when things went wrong and publicly supported his teammates, even after tough losses. I spoke to him after a disappointing opening-night loss to the Eagles back in 2018. After the game was delayed for 40 minutes by a rainstorm and playing in hot conditions, Allen didn’t hesitate to do interviews and speak till almost one in the morning. He praised Damontae Kazee for replacing Neal, who suffered a season-ending injury in that game.
No matter what you asked him, Allen gave you a detailed response. We did multiple interviews in 2017 and 2018. On every occasion, I learned something valuable about the game of football. Allen always left you impressed with his wisdom and character.
Tearing his Achillies in 2018 did derail his upward trajectory. Allen wasn’t able to reach the same heights when returning in 2019. Once Quinn was fired in 2020, it became apparent that Allen’s days as a starting free safety were numbered. His ability to cover deep space in coverage wasn’t the same. His open-field tackling wasn’t as on point as it once was.
The mistakes were accumulating for a defense making far too many of them. Allen was still a valuable mentor in the locker room. From watching the film, you can see him identifying pre-snap motions and formation changes. His mind for the game was clearly there. The physical ability wasn’t quite as there anymore.
Allen did wonder if he was going to get another opportunity to play elsewhere. Thanks to his old recruiter, he was able to find a new home rather quickly. Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo recruited him to play for Purdue. They maintained a strong relationship since Allen was taking interceptions to the house in the Big Ten. That connection helped him find his place on a young team.
Signing with Cincinnati meant playing behind one of the top young safeties in the league in Jessie Bates. Being the consummate professional and leader that he is, Allen embraced being a mentor on a revamped defense. Besides being a veteran presence, he has also become one of their key contributors on special teams.
It’s fitting that Allen finds himself on the verge of winning a championship in the unlikeliest circumstances. Nobody viewed the Falcons as a contender going into 2016. Nobody viewed the Bengals as a contender going into 2021.
Although his role is drastically different now, his influence remains the same. It will likely continue to grow as Allen looks to pursue coaching when his playing days are over. He is a born leader that loves football and understands the complex technical aspects of the sport.
Given the impact he makes on players to how he communicates with the media, Allen could make an immediate splash as a coach, similar to recent former players turned coaches in DeMeco Ryans and Jerod Mayo. That’s the power of someone who kept defying the odds and evolving as a player. It’s something that organizations, players, and fans will remember when he takes off the helmet for the final time and puts on a headset for many years to come.
Achieving the ultimate dream
After going to battle together five years ago, Morris and Allen will be on opposite sides to get what they fully deserve. Morris won’t be coaching the wide receivers and coordinating the passing game on this occasion. He will be fully responsible for putting together a game plan to contain Joe Burrow.
Allen won’t be on the field for every snap and organizing the defense. He will be contributing on special teams and helping wherever he can on both sides of the ball. Considering he was directly coached by Morris in 2015 and 2019-2020, Allen will be doing whatever he can to help Burrow, Joe Mixon, and Zac Taylor pinpoint tendencies in Morris’ philosophy and exploit the weaknesses.
As the game unfolds, both men should be remembered fondly for what they did in Atlanta. Both were instrumental in the highest of highs in 2016 and 2017. They stood firmly together during the lowest of lows in 2019 and 2020. Both positively left their mark across the Falcons’ organization. For them to be on the verge of winning a championship should be inspiring and fulfilling to everyone that played and worked with them. It’s a proud moment that should be celebrated.
It may not be the last time either, as Allen could join Morris on a coaching staff in the future. They could also be coaching against each other on the grandest stage. Whatever the case they may be, their journey will never be forgotten, and their efforts for one of the best Falcons teams ever will be remembered fondly.