Falcons — Team Raheem — get a first win in dominating fashion

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris says he believes the team played winning football for the first time this season and played aggressively.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The past week was a hectic one for the Falcons. They purged leadership. Shuffled staff. Shut down their practice facility for a day while dealing with a small COVID bloom. And sometime, without announcing the experimental procedure to anyone, underwent a full personality transplant.

Who were those guys in Minneapolis Sunday? Souped-up in all three phases. Taking a lead and holding on to it like a stray dog would a soup bone. Daring on offense, damaging on defense. Playing as if utterly uninterested in drafting Trevor Lawrence. And, yes, winning.

They even jumped on not one, but two, onside kicks, rather than watching the ball spin on the ground, like school kids studying a beetle on its back. See, you never stop learning.

Yes, these Falcons were unrecognizable in every way Sunday. When almost nothing this week pointed to anything good, they went out a put up the first tent pole of victory here six games into 2020.

Through the turmoil of a coaching change from Dan Quinn to interim Raheem Morris and the loss of a real hand-to-hand practice session Thursday, these Falcons emerged not with just a win, but a thoroughly dominant 40-23 victory at Minnesota.

Again, we ask, who were those guys and where have they been all this season?

“I can’t worry about where it’s been, I just have to worry about where it’s going,” Morris said.

Team Raheem is now 1-0, and through the masks they all wore to the postgame virtual interviews, you could almost see the first smiles in two months. Haven’t seen this much joy from this team being in far-away Minneapolis since 1998 and a certain overtime NFC Championship game that left old coach Dan Reeves flapping his wings, doing the Dirty Bird.

And, in fact, the spirit of Sunday’s win seemed to summon in Morris some of the best parts of the last couple decades of Falcons football.

“It looked a little dirty today, like old fashioned Dirty Bird. I loved it, man. It came out of nowhere,” he said.

And more: “A little brotherhood. A little Dirty Bird. With the collaboration of a win. Sounds good to me.”

Admittedly beating the now 1-5 Vikings is hardly banner worthy. But give the Falcons this day to revel. Because no victory can be taken lightly by this bunch. And after a week like they had — after five weeks like they’ve had — they should go ahead and throw themselves a socially distanced Mardi Gras.

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones (45) intercepts a pass intended for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during Minnesota's first offensive play Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The first play of Morris’ interim coach-ship Sunday demonstrated just how in tune this team was with his message. Go run, go hit, go find the ball, he instructed them during scarce practice time last week. And immediately, linebacker Deion Jones picked off a curiously errant Kirk Cousins.

Three times the Falcons intercepted Cousins in the first half, including career first picks for linebacker Foye Oluokun and rookie first-round pick A.J. Terrell. Given how he went all between the legs before securing the ball, Terrell wins any intrasquad competition on style points.

As if a trio of interceptions weren’t enough to ensure a shut-down first half, the defense threw in a goal line stand on 4th-and-goal on their own 1 early in the second quarter, stuffing the run.

“That’s major,” Deion Jones said. “We’ve been there before and to finally capitalize on it is awesome. It goes to show how tough we are and that we’re able to do it.”

Meanwhile, the offense converted those three interceptions into 17 points. By halftime, the Falcons led 20-0 and pushed it to 23-0 with a 47-yard Younghoe Koo field goal to end their first possession of the second half. Morris worked hard on his so-called “run-and-hit” guys this week. But the kick-and-go-sit-down guy did well, too. Koo hit all four of his attempts Sunday, the longest of 50 yards.

Now, under the Quinn regime, getting a nice lead usually is where the problems begin. But let’s turn that page today. Let it be know these are the extremes you sometimes have to go to in order to hold an advantage: Like going for it on fourth down on the Minnesota 40 late in the third quarter. And good, ol' standup quarterback Matt Ryan dancing around out of the pocket, buying time, until he found the perfect dump off option — Julio Jones — who did the real running for a touchdown that built the Falcons lead to 30-7.

Announced Morris, showing that the interim isn’t just a humorless, pile-driving coach: “Matt Ryan is a scrambler, man. He’s the new age, new wave quarterback. He’s no longer a pocket passer.” Most importantly, Ryan was Ryan again, completing 30-of-40 passes for 371 yards, four scores and no interceptions.

“The offensive guys led me, they got me going in the right direction, to be aggressive,” Morris added. “Today I gave those guys the keys and they took them and ran with it.”

Woven all through this victory was an energy that had been sorely missing despite all of Quinn’s good intentions. It’s rare for an interim to have such an immediate effect. According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune stat, the first-game record for the 92 interim coaches in the NFL since 1960 was 31-60-1 (just a .342 winning percentage).

In the short term, this Falcons coaching change achieved its objective shaking up a stagnant team and bringing out talents that have been obscured for the better part of two seasons. And let’s be practical, it certainly helped, too, to have a healthy Julio Jones (137 receiving yards, two TDs) back on the field.

No telling how long Team Raheem will play like this because personality transplants are tricky and the rejection rate high. All you can do is hope for the best.

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