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Falcons reach into their past in hopes of a brighter future with Raheem Morris

Atlanta brings back their 2020 interim head coach with an eye on winning football games in 2024 and beyond.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons were at a crossroads as a franchise, as they so often seem to be of late. Having fired Arthur Smith after a third straight 7-10 season, the Falcons seemingly had a choice between deciding Smith was the wrong kind of young coordinator hire and treading down that path once again, betting on the biggest name and most experienced hire you could possibly get in Bill Belichick with the teardown that would accompany that move, or selecting a candidate with a blend of experience and traits the franchise liked. The fact that they chose that third path—and that it ended up being the choice of a coach they resisted hiring just three years ago—qualifies as a surprise. But it’s a surprise they clearly believe will deliver wins.

The team’s hiring of Raheem Morris sent shockwaves through the fanbase and parts of the larger NFL landscape, especially with Belichick looming large in the background of this coaching search and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik reportedly impressing the Falcons in recent days. With Morris, the Falcons are going for a coordinator hire who is still pretty young—he is just 47 despite coaching in the NFL since 2002—but has a ton of experience as a head coach, assistant head coach, coordinator, and position coach, including a multi-year stint in Atlanta where he was the interim head coach, passing game coordinator, defensive coordinator, and wide receivers coach. With Morris, the Falcons are seeking a brighter future by reaching into their recent past, prizing what they know about Morris and what they believe he can offer over the teardown and new growth Belichick promised or the unknown upside other candidates might have brought to the table. And hey, it appears the head coach and general manager are reporting directly in to Arthur Blank again, so perhaps some portion of that shift in the organization is happening regardless.

Morris had been a popular name in the head coaching cycle this time out, and after years of getting interviews, he has finally landed his second chance as an NFL head coach in the division that gave him his first one. The Falcons lauded his experience, leadership, and growth as a coach in announcing the hire, and now Morris is tasked with turning around a franchise that has suffered six straight losing seasons and has been listless and rudderless for far too many of them.

In asking him to tackle that huge job, the Falcons have made it clear that Morris is the right man to lead the way to winning days, something an impatient owner and beyond frustrated fanbase are ready for. The questions, of course, are why they selected him, and why this may or may not work out, which I’ll attempt to tackle here as best as anyone can the day after a hire.

Why Morris?

You start with the experience. The Falcons alluded to wanting a more seasoned hire than a first-time head coach coming from the coordinator ranks, and they got one. Morris has a 25-45 record as a head coach—4-7 as the Falcons interim after a miserable 0-5 start in 2020 that got Dan Quinn fired, 21-38 in Tampa bay—that includes a pair of really bad seasons with the Buccaneers and a 10-6 mark with Josh Freeman at quarterback, somehow.

Morris has been candid about how much he has grown and learn since his Tampa Bay days, when he was among the youngest head coaches in league history, and his experience since leaving the Buccaneers reflects that journey. He overlapped with future head coaches Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, and Mike McDaniel in Washington when he was coaching defensive backs from 2012-2014, and then followed Dan Quinn to Atlanta as his assistant head coach. Morris served as the passing game coordinator on defense for five seasons in addition to the assistant head coach job, and then pulled double duty from 2016-2019 as the team’s wide receivers coach, gaining valuable experience on the other side of the ball and managing a room full of big personalities. In 2020, he took over as the defensive coordinator and endured a miserable early stretch before assuming the title of interim head coach, coaxing a few quality games out of those lackluster Falcons en route to that 4-7 record.

At the time, Arthur Blank famously said (and then walked back) comments that Morris might be hired if he went 11-0, making it clear that he would be unlikely to get serious consideration as the next head coach. The Falcons wanted to pivot in an entirely different direction from the Dan Quinn era and did, with an improved cap situation and roster but not much else three years on, and so Morris moved on to Los Angeles. His time with the Rams would prove to be fruitful, as he’d draw praise from general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay while being the defensive coordinator for three seasons and helping pilot the team to a Super Bowl win over the high-powered Bengals. Last year might’ve been his most impressive coaching job, as he wrung high level play out of a defense mostly comprising young players and unknown names.

That’s over a decade of work on both sides of the ball, as a full-time coordinator, interim head coach, and assistant head coach, since the last time he was a head coach. The fact that Blank and McKay got to see that work firsthand while he was in Atlanta had to help, but regardless, Morris is easily the most experienced hire Blank has made since taking over ownership of the team. The Falcons were clearly looking to land someone with that kind of varied experience.

The work on defense doesn’t come with eye-popping statistical output, but you have to scratch a bit beyond the surface to understand why what Morris did with the Rams mattered. They held the Bengals to 20 points in the Super Bowl back in 2022, ensuring a win on a day where their high-powered offense mustered just 23 points, and Morris took a defense that featured 10 starters with Day 2, Day 3, or undrafted free agent pedigrees in 2023 and turned it into an unexpectedly solid group. Los Angeles was betting big on an all-in approach that left them thin at some spots and virtually barren at others, particularly on defense, and Sean McVay was counting on Morris to make the most of those disparate pieces in a way that he largely did. The Falcons liked having Ryan Nielsen as defensive coordinator a year ago because he got the most out of everyone from stars to late round picks; Morris can and likely will do the same.

The familiarity is almost certainly a factor here, as well. Perhaps McKay, who is no longer in charge of day-to-day football operations, really went to bat for Morris after their shared days in both Tampa Bay and Atlanta. But Arthur Blank was the man who reportedly badly wanted Bill Belichick, Terry Fontenot the general manager without ties to Morris, and they were both convinced to go with Morris out of a huge list of candidates. That’s not because McKay is a moving orator who overcame their qualms with Morris; it’s because Morris must have killed the interview, something that was widely reported leading up to the hire. It’s because Morris the coach has a track record and Morris the leader has a track record, and that track record is an impressive one even if you aren’t familiar with him firsthand.

Still, you can’t overlook the fact that Morris knows people in this people, as he coached up Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell and others he’ll now be coaching again. The reaction from former players that I saw on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive, but none of those reactions matter to me quite as much as the one from Jarrett, himself a leader of men who has toiled on a lot of losing teams over the years. Perhaps he’ll be able to attract quality players to Atlanta to help get this thing pointed in the right direction.

If you tie together the experience, the familiarity, the work as a defensive coordinator with the Rams, and how beloved he is by players for his coaching and leadership, you get at the heart of what made Morris the choice for the Falcons. As I’ve alluded to above, Morris was known for this from the moment he arrived in Atlanta back in 2015, but it speaks volumes that his former general manager in Tampa Bay spoke so highly of him back in 2020 to the late and very missed Vaughn McClure despite the fortunes of those teams.

“Truthfully, looking back, we gutted the team [of veteran players] too far. We made the job too difficult. And that’s our own fault. We bought into [young players], so that’s what we did. When I think about Raheem now, I think he deserves another chance because he’s grown a lot over the last decade. He would be a guy I would absolutely put on my radar to interview as a head coach.”

The Falcons looked at a coach with those qualities, coming out of an organization stocked with impressive coaches he should be able to lure to Atlanta, and became convinced he was the right hire out of more than a dozen candidates. Again, whether you imagine this will work out or not, it’s a sign of how impressive Morris must have been that he’s back in Atlanta despite not getting hired the last time out.

For someone bracing for Bill Belichick to be the hire—I wrote resignedly about a week ago that everything being reported indicated that we were heading there, and I’m not at all unhappy that aged poorly—the fact that Blank ultimately decided not to blow up his organization in pursuit of the legendary coach comes as a legitimate surprise. The fact that McKay isn’t in the day-to-day football role he enjoyed the past few years, giving GM and head coach more sway on paper, is also a surprise. Morris and Fontenot, who is fresh off one of the better offseasons in team history, now get to move forward with their own vision for what this team should be, with Morris having the opportunity to put his stamp on this franchise in a way he simply could not as an interim coach back in 2020. Blank made a big bet not just on the coach but also on the general manager and the general structure of the organization, and given his age and desire to win now, it’s not a bet I take lightly.

Will it work?

I suspect it will, though going beyond “this team will win more games with Morris” is tough to do before we see how this staff and roster are built out. Players love Morris, and Morris is a coach who should be able to hire a strong staff and work directly with young defenders to coax improvement out of them. The crux of this hire was getting someone who could get a team that badly underachieved this year back to relevance; I don’t think anyone’s going to suggest that Morris will have any trouble motivating the team to do so.

The best reason to think this will work beyond Morris’s obvious strengths as a leader concern what he did best as a defensive coordinator and his ties to capable coaches. Morris was in Atlanta to help A.J. Terrell through a rocky rookie season, but it’s the work in Los Angeles with a very young, very unproven defense that makes me hopeful, given that Atlanta badly needs to infuse youth into that side of the ball here. Ryan Nielsen’s strong work as the defensive coordinator last year was massive for the franchise; Morris and his staff will be asked to build on that work with what’s likely to be a younger, less proven defensive roster, and I like his chances of being able to do just that.

His ties to and appreciation for coaches from the Shanahan/McVay tree on the offensive side of the ball means there’s a good chance the Falcons end up with a quality offensive coordinator, minus the great fear being that such a coach will be poached in a year or two. If you combine a quality roster set to improve further this offseason with a good group of coaches, I think it’s extremely reasonable to suggest that the Falcons will be heading in the right direction this year, and hopefully that comes with long-awaited postseason success.

What might hold Morris back, ultimately, is what might hold any coach back: A lack of a solution at the quarterback position. I trust Morris to coach this defense even if his results haven’t universally been stellar, and I trust him to build out a quality staff. What I don’t know if he and Fontenot will be able to do is find a quarterback who won’t drag a good roster down, though chances are good they can get someone who will not turn the ball over as disastrously often as Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke did in 2023. It’s not a huge exaggeration to say that poor quarterback play could undermine good coaching and a good roster; I wasn’t always a fan of Smith’s decision-making, but that’s effectively what happened this past year. The path to getting that good quarterback is not necessarily a straightforward one.

The other concern is that Morris will not be able to take the defense to the next level. As I’ve written multiple times above, he was known for the way he coached up young players in Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Atlanta more than the extremely high level at which those defenses played; ensuring Morris has the talent on hand to succeed and that he has a good staff will be really important. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Morris has rarely had the talent on hand to push for an elite defense, but the Falcons are going to try to give him the closest approximation they can manage in 2024 and beyond, and he’ll need to show he and his staff can deliver high-end results.

Ultimately, it will come down to the strength of his staff and who ends up playing quarterback for the Falcons. Assuming he gets the hires right and the Falcons land at least an above average player under center, I think Fontenot’s personnel moves and Morris’s ability to maximize his players and motivate them will add up to much better football for these Falcons in the very near future.

What’s next?

Morris has to fill out a staff, something I imagine he’ll move quickly to do. I can see a handful of coaches hanging around—perhaps Marquice Williams as special teams coordinator, maybe Matt Schaub in some capacity given his familiarity with Morris—but it’s likely the bulk of the coaching staff will be turned over. Morris will want his guys, and I expect we’ll know in short order who they are.

From there, the Falcons will have to make some calls on who will be on this roster in 2024 and how much cap space they want to carve out in the service of another big free agency period, something I imagine Fontenot would like to repeat. The team will have to, either by virtue of free agency, trades, or the draft, come up with a workable solution to the quarterback problem that sunk the 2023 season. And then it will be up to Morris to do what the Falcons are counting on him to do: Get the team coached up and ready to win in 2024.

As dead-eyed and beaten down as we Falcons fans are after all this losing, it will take those victories to endear a large portion of the fanbase to Morris. Given the opportunity in front of him and the strengths he brings to the franchise, I expect those victories will arrive, with the question concerning how much improvement we see out of the Raheem Morris-led Falcons, rather than whether there’s any improvement to be had.