Either way, it’s interesting.
As he touted Morris as a coach – as a leader, on a scale of 1-10, Blank called him a 20 – he said that Morris’ three years with the Rams were very powerful for him professionally. And one way that Morris particularly grew was in his understanding of how a head coach can develop a staff that is ready to replace coordinators who leave for head-coaching jobs or position coaches who leave to become coordinators.
“I think he saw how a different, very successful coaching staff and tree is built, and how limbs from that tree could be taken away, but because of the base of the tree, the roots of the tree were strong,” Blank said. “They were able to replenish those roots and the limbs would grow back and continue to compete at a very high level.”
Blank was conducting the virtual conference because an illness had prevented him from attending Monday’s in-person news conference for Morris and, helpfully, he wanted to give media the chance to ask him about Morris and the search. At one point, though, Blank could only be seen and not heard, leading to the inevitable “Arthur, you’re muted” and “Can you hear me now?”
Rarely have I felt such kinship with someone who owns a superyacht. But back to Morris.
Blank brought up Morris’ staff-replacement plan early on in the news conference and then later when he was asked if there was a moment in Morris’ interviews with Blank and other Falcons officials that he really stood out.
He first explained that he had known Morris for a long time (he was on Dan Quinn’s staff for six years, from 2015-20, completing the term as interim head coach after Quinn’s dismissal) and knows his leadership and energy. Then he mentioned the endorsements from the likes of Rams coach Sean McVay, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, and then that “it was very clear to me that the three years that he spent in L.A. were very powerful for him professionally” before giving the above quote about Morris’ education in keeping a strong coaching staff and promoting from within.
“I think Raheem came back with an intense knowledge of how to do that,” Blank said in his first mention of Morris’ replacement plan. “How to put that in place in Atlanta, which was very important.”
That will be important, undoubtedly, should Morris get the Falcons to a place where they are consistently successful. Morris has the job now in no small part because he had been with the Rams for the past three seasons after the six on Quinn’s staff. It’s what happens to the top teams in the league.
And Blank’s own experience of losing members of Quinn’s staff has reinforced its importance. The Falcons’ 2016 NFC championship team spilled over with coaching talent. Quinn’s offensive coordinator was Shanahan, who has gone on to lead the 49ers to two Super Bowl berths. The quarterbacks coach was Matt LaFleur, now the Packers’ head coach. One of the offensive assistants was Mike McDaniel, now the highly regarded head coach of the Dolphins. Morris himself was Quinn’s wide receivers coach.
“And we didn’t retain them,” Blank said, particularly referring to LaFleur and McDaniel.
It was highly unlikely Quinn could have held onto Shanahan, who was hired by the 49ers as head coach. But LaFleur left to become the Rams’ offensive coordinator when he could have been promoted to the same role on Quinn’s staff. McDaniel left with Shanahan to become the 49ers’ run-game specialist. (Morris stayed until the end of Quinn’s tenure.)
It’s not like Quinn’s replacement for Shanahan was a doofus – it actually was Steve Sarkisian, now head coach of the Texas Longhorns – but the drainage contributed to the Falcons’ downfall after the 2016 Super Bowl season and ultimately to the demise of Quinn’s tenure.
So it follows that such a readiness would speak to Blank.
“I look back on that, and I say it was not probably the best we could have done, and I’ve learned from that, and I think our organization learned from that, as well,” Blank said.
Which is fine. And, again, this focus on planning to replace assistant coaches is a sign that Blank is so sure of Morris’ ability to win games that the succession plan for his coaching staff is also highly important, even for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2017. Morris does come with plenty to recommend him – past experience as an NFL head coach, more than two decades of NFL coaching experience and endorsements from players and coaches across the league. And Blank raved about Morris’ staff, calling its depth “remarkable.”
But it’s interesting that Blank didn’t tout that as a strength of Arthur Smith when he was hired in January 2021. And, more to the point, even if it had been a strength, it wouldn’t have mattered because the Falcons never won enough to where their coaches became hot commodities.
It’s his team, his decision and Blank has learned plenty in his time as Falcons owner about hiring coaches. It may prove blindingly prescient if Blank develops calluses from lifting so many Lombardi trophies. But if that’s what helped move Morris to the top of the pile, it’s interesting.