Falcons’ Morris looks fine as interim, but odds don’t favor promotion

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris discusses the team’s performance since taking over midseason.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Raheem Morris just may have wrapped up the unenviable title of Best Falcons Interim Head Coach Ever. He is every substitute teacher’s hero. He is the loaner car better than the one you wrecked. And a franchise owes him its sincere, if fleeting, gratitude.

In fact, if the NFL gave out a league-wide Interim Coach of the Year Award — which he’d probably get to keep only for a couple months before having to give that up, too — Morris is the man in 2020.

He certainly has been a steadier hand than Jim Hanifan, who shortly after going 0-4 as the Falcons interim in 1989 was arrested during a 4 a.m. encounter for drunk driving and actions generally unbecoming a 56-year-old adult.

Morris hasn’t had all the advantages of Rich Brooks, who won a couple of games as acting coach during the Falcons’ Super Bowl run of 1998 while Dan Reeves recovered from bypass surgery. Nor, in truth, was he handed the steaming tire fire of Emmitt Thomas, who subbed in the final three games of 2007 after Bobby Petrino fled for Arkansas and a future date with facial road rash.

At 4-2 since taking over for Dan Quinn (who was 0-5 at the time of his dismissal), Morris already has more wins than such other Falcons interims as Wade Phillips (2-1, 2003) or Pat Peppler (3-6, 1976). The Falcons, you see, are far too familiar with the concept of caretaker coach.

After following his worst loss as an interim — a 24-9 reality check in New Orleans — with his most impressive victory — Sunday’s 43-6 undressing of the Las Vegas Raiders — it has become increasingly obvious that Morris is a serious coach worthy of serious consideration. That said, given the urge to purge around these Falcons, the result of two-plus disappointing seasons, you’d have to grade Morris’ chance of getting this job on a full-time basis as doubtful.

The great temptation is to wipe this slate clean, to pair a new general manager with a new coach and get about the business of building a new team. But fairness demands a clear-eyed look at Morris, whose work in changing the cadence around this team, of getting it to march to his blunt instructions rather than Dan Quinn’s jingoes, has been noteworthy. Now here’s a team that more often than not looks for ways to win rather than seeking the backdoor to defeat.

As ever, Morris asks of himself nothing more than he has his players, meaning he stubbornly refuses to address any part of his future beyond the next week’s game. Which happens to be a telling rematch at home against the Saints on Sunday.

As he repeated Monday when asked if he deserved a promotion from interim to just plain head coach, Morris said, “I definitely have the 1-0 mentality. There’s no doubt about that. The only thing that I can tell you about giving somebody an honest shot in life is what they (contribute) on a daily basis.”

Morris, who was 17-31 in three seasons as head coach with Tampa Bay (2009-11), is still just 44 years old and has had ample time and opportunity to build upon the experience of that disappointing stint. His leadership in the short term with the Falcons has made him worthy of re-examination by some team, if not this one.

Given control of the Falcons at their lowest point of the season, Morris had to deliver his message overnight to a reeling bunch.

That message, as he explained Monday: “You just have to flat out be honest with the guys and tell them the truth. The truth was that we had failed (Quinn) miserably through the first five games and that’s the cost of what happens. We’re going to move forward. I asked those guys just to let me lead them. I told them to come back (the next day) and be prepared to be ready to deal. When it came back, that’s when the preparation and the first meeting with them and how we’re going to go about our new approach. Our new approach was simple – force our will on our opponent, score and get the ball back and then we wanted to build on those things.

“As we’ve been building on those things the last couple of weeks, we’ve found ways to dictate the terms of games to get wins. As I come in every week and tell them to dictate the terms that we’re going to do to get wins, whether it be third-down philosophy, whether it be a red-zone philosophy or whether it be something that we need to do just from the standpoint of the run game, whatever the case may be.”

The five games remaining represent a bigger challenge than Morris’ first six. There’s one more against New Orleans, two with Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Bucs, the world champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Falcons’ lone opponent with a current losing record, the Los Angeles Chargers.

You figure the Falcons would have to finish 4-1 to make Arthur Blank’s decision really difficult. You figure it would take something that unexpected to bring Morris to the center of the Falcons’ coach search, and to prove that there just might be a little Brian Snitker — the ultimate interim made good — in this candidate.

Every game is a job interview, and the questions are about to get a lot more taxing for the Falcons’ Best Interim Head Coach Ever. And even if he aces December, he must also beat back the reality that he never was meant to be a long-term solution.

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