Matt Ryan saw Raheem Morris’ head-coach potential over 6 seasons

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) embraces interim coach Raheem Morris before the first half of a game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) embraces interim coach Raheem Morris before the first half of a game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

When Matt Ryan was the Falcons’ quarterback and Raheem Morris was their wide receivers coach, they regularly shared meetings with players and coaches from both position groups. When the subject was the passing game, the leading voices typically were Ryan or the offensive coordinator.

“But where (Morris) would come in was in the run game, getting on these (receivers) for effort, for blocking,” Ryan said Friday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And you’d sit there and you’d be like, ‘Man.’ Like, ‘Oh, OK. He’s not messing around.’”

But at the same time, Morris wasn’t only the unyielding drill sergeant. Morris, Ryan said, “creates these personal relationships where you understand that he cares.”

Morris’ ability to do both well is one reason why he was hired last week as the Falcons’ head coach. And it’s also one reason among many why Ryan, now serving as an analyst for CBS, is glad not just for Morris, but also the franchise.

“I think Falcons fans should be excited,” Ryan said.

Ryan and Morris worked together in Flowery Branch from 2015-20, when Morris filled a variety of roles: defensive passing-game coordinator, wide receivers coach, offensive passing-game coordinator, secondary coach and, in 2020, defensive coordinator and then interim head coach. That provided more than enough time to convince Ryan that Morris, even though he had a 17-31 record in his three seasons as the Buccaneers coach (2009-11), possessed the necessary attributes to be an effective head coach and deserved another chance.

“Shoot, I would talk to him all the time,” Ryan said. “‘Hey, man, when you’re a head coach, wherever it’s going to be in a few years, just think about these type of situations.’ We would have those conversations regularly.”

The ability to relate to players while still holding them accountable was no small part of Ryan’s confidence. While Morris made the effort to know his players on a personal level, “at the same time, he’s not scared to tell you when you’re not up to the standard,” Ryan said. “I think that’s going to be a real strength for him.”

It was evident, too, when Morris was the team’s defensive coordinator, a position he held in 2020 before becoming the interim head coach after the midseason firing of Dan Quinn. Ryan saw Morris demanding that players execute their assignments and play with effort.

“And I thought that was one of the things that stood out, for sure, during our time together,” Ryan said.

That willingness to demand accountability and make difficult decisions also showed up on Morris’ first full day as the interim, Ryan remembered. That was when Morris fired special-teams coach Ben Kotwica.

“It’s part of it – leadership is lonely at times,” Ryan said. “So I think that’s an important part of it, as well.”

Ryan offered other qualities that he believed are necessary to be an effective head coach. They include authenticity, communicating a vision and the plan to achieve it and having and fulfilling a vision for the coaching staff. How the staff shapes out remains to be seen, but Ryan saw the other traits.

Morris brought energy as a coach, the sort that could get Ryan going when he was dragging in the midst of the long season.

“High energy every day,” Ryan said, stressing the point. “Every day.”

It definitely was not an act.

“You can’t fake that for six years,” Ryan said.

In his 11-game term as interim, Morris communicated well in front of the team, explaining the plan for the week and how it was to be achieved. (The Falcons were 4-7 in those games.)

“I thought he was really good at that,” Ryan said. “And with the expectations, I thought he was very clear about what the expectations were for us as players.”

As for the staff, Ryan offered a second-hand endorsement of Morris’ offensive coordinator, Zac Robinson, formerly the Rams’ quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator. Ryan said that Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, a close friend of Ryan’s, raved about him.

“Just who he is as a coach, what kind of guy he is, how he is to work with,” Ryan said. “(Stafford) thinks he’s incredibly smart. I value Matthew’s opinion highly, and I trust what he has to say.”

It is noteworthy, too, that Morris’ staff is heavy on coaches who either worked with him in Los Angeles (besides Robinson, that includes defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake) or were on former Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s staff and undoubtedly carried the endorsement of club officials.

“It’s different when you work with someone every day and you get to see behind the scenes,” Ryan said. “I think there’s added value to that, as well.”

Beyond the soft leadership skills, he can coach, too. Morris’ work with a young Rams defense this season was widely hailed. With dead money swallowing up much of the salary cap, the defense took up only 21.3% of the cap this season. It was the smallest portion of any defense in the NFL. Despite that handicap, the Rams ranked 19th in scoring defense and 20th in total defense.

“To see what he did with the defense in L.A. this past year with a bunch of young guys, kind of bringing them together the last two seasons, I thought was really impressive,” Ryan said.

All that said, Ryan acknowledged that the fate of Morris’ tenure will ride heavily on finding the right quarterback. For all his vision-setting, player-relating, accountability-holding attributes, they will mean little if the Falcons don’t find a playmaker behind center.

“Their inability to do that in Tampa ultimately determined the outcome for a lot of what they did there,” Ryan said. “I think it’s going to be imperative for him to get it right here.”