With most of his coaching staff hired and most of the hot takes around his hiring having cooled off over the past week or so, Raheem Morris met the press on Monday. You can’t take away too much in the way of specifics from an introductory press conference, but you can get a feel for the new head coach and what his plans are, even so.
Here are some quick, bleary-eyed notes from that press conference—I just blew in from a long vacation, so I’ll have something more comprehensive in the days ahead—and what we’re learning about a coach I have high expectations for.
First year expectations
After three years of the Arthur Smith-Terry Fontenot-led rebuild of Atlanta’s roster, which resulted in an improved talent level for the team but also three straight 7-10 seasons, I don’t think I was alone in wondering what the new Falcons head coach would say about expectations in his first season at the helm. One of the things we’ve gotten used to is a certain amount of hedging around Atlanta’s potential, even with clearly heightened expectations in 2023, and I’ve written before that I anticipated that Morris would be asked to get this team back to winning right away.
That’s not something Morris is shying away from, making it clear he expects a team that disappointed in 2023 after being tapped as an NFC South favorite to actually win the division and then...well, who knows? Maybe more than that.
Falcons head coach Raheem Morris. "The clear-cut goal for us to obviously win the (NFC) South."— Terrin Waack (@TerrinWaack) February 5, 2024
Morris is inheriting a pretty good roster that he’ll be asked to help make even better, both through personnel input and the motivational skills he possesses to help draw more out of these Falcons. If Arthur Smith had to work with the double-edged sword of a bad roster and lowered expectations coming in, Morris will be dealing with a team many of us believe should be a winner right away. It’s to his credit that he’s not in any way dancing around those expectations early on.
Quarterback is critical, but it’s not the first step
Morris was asked about the team’s quarterback situation, and his comments suggested that he both recognizes the importance of getting that situation right and is well aware that a solution is going to have to come from outside of the building.
Falcons HC Raheem Morris said they've had "some conversation" about quarterbacks -- but they've been more focused on trying to build out a staff so far.— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) February 5, 2024
Said they could look at free agency, trade, the draft. Basically anything.
That should help put minds at ease about the possibility that the Falcons might be tempted to try again with Desmond Ridder or Taylor Heinicke, something I know at least a small percentage of fans were concerned about. If it’s light on specifics, that’s understandable with the team not even having fully filled out the coaching staff and with February just beginning. What’s important is that the team be prepared to give that decision the weight it merits, given that missing badly on a quarterback again might derail Morris early in his tenure just as it derailed Smith.
Morris will not call plays
I suspect one of the ways Morris really endeared himself to Atlanta’s brass (again) had to do with his highly-lauded communication and interpersonal skills. Morris has a reputation as a leader and a coach players respond to, and while it would be simplistic to suggest that they went with Morris over, say, Bill Belichick because of those abilities and his willingness to collaborate, I certainly don’t think it hurts.
That’s clearly going to be a focus for Morris. In some ways, Arthur Smith and (before him and at times) Dan Quinn were undone by their control over underperforming units, with their play calling coming under fire and their areas of specialty falling short. Morris could calls plays on defense—he’s done so for the Rams over the past three seasons—but he’s intent on empowering new Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake to do that.
Raheem Morris expects DC Jimmy Lake to call the defense.— Josh Kendall (@JoshTheAthletic) February 5, 2024
Morris had glowing words for Zac Robinson, too, but made it clear he’ll be focusing on the team holistically and in-game management, the latter being welcome given that both Dan Quinn and Arthur Smith had extremely frustrating lapses there.
Raheem Morris said he really wants Jimmy Lake to be the DC through and through (forward facing, calling plays, etc.) so he can focus on game management and be able to speak to the team in totality.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) February 5, 2024
This is playing to what Morris does well. He’s spent time coaching on both sides of the ball and has managed players in a variety of roles over the years, and getting him to do so in Atlanta while dedicating himself to the big decisions teams ask of their head coaches on gameday feels like a plus. Obviously, Robinson and Lake have to be very good at what they do in order to make that really hum, but Morris obviously has ample confidence in that.
Terry Fontenot will be a true partner, and an empowered one
Fontenot did not get to pick his first head coach. He and Arthur Smith often talked about how often they collaborated and the role Smith had in helping to build the roster, so it’s not like that partnership was a sour one. But much has changed of late.
The optics around the season-ending press conference where Fontenot was absent were not great, something I think the team belatedly realized, but everything the team has done since then has seemingly led to more influence for the general manager. Fontenot said on Tuesday that he led the search for a head coach, making him one of the strongest voices in the room for the hiring of Morris, and now he reports directly up to Arthur Blank instead of in to Rich McKay. However overblown you may think the fuss over McKay’s role might have been, these are not small things for Fontenot.
“I totally get that. You expect to see the GM at the end of the season press confrence. Arthur (Blank) was very clear about his decision (to leave him out) and we talked after. He informed me I’d be leading the search for the next head coach.” Falcons GM Terry Fontenot to us.— DukesandBell929 (@DukesandBell929) February 5, 2024
It doesn’t change the calculus for Morris and Fontenot, who stressed they’ll collaborate on decisions large and small for the Falcons, and that means Morris should have considerable say and sway in terms of what free agents land in Atlanta and where the team goes for that crucial quarterback decision. It also means that Fontenot, who put together one of the strongest offseasons in team history last spring, gets to push thing forward with a coach he clearly wanted to work with and with the power to continue to strengthen the roster. That should be a good thing.
Any thoughts on Morris’s first presser?