No one believes in Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake more than Raheem Morris

Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks to members of the media at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility, Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Falcons defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake speaks to members of the media at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility, Wednesday, February 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz /

FLOWERY BRANCH — Jimmy Lake comes to the Falcons with some clear question marks on the résumé. The team’s new defensive coordinator has never run a defense at the NFL level and, actually, has spent only six seasons in the NFL.

What also might matter to some is that in his most significant opportunity, he failed on a big scale, getting fired as head coach at the University of Washington in November 2021 after less than two years on the job. The fall included an incident in which he appeared to strike a Huskies player and shove him in the back on the sideline of a game.

But what Lake also clearly possesses is the confidence of Falcons coach Raheem Morris, who repeatedly has demonstrated in his actions his belief in Lake as a coach. Morris’ decision to put Lake in charge of the Falcons defense is the biggest. Morris waited more than a decade after his unsuccessful tenure as Tampa Bay’s head coach to become an NFL head coach again. That he has entrusted Lake to run his defense, when he surely had more experienced candidates available, speaks volumes.

Consequently, there may not be a bigger Morris proponent in Atlanta than Lake.

“The energy that he brings, the vibe that he brings, he’s never had a bad day in his life,” Lake said Wednesday at his introductory news conference at the Falcons complex. “But then also the football knowledge, it’s incredible. He’s one of one.”

Lake didn’t know Morris when their paths first intersected. It was with the Buccaneers after the 2006 season. After six years coaching on the college level, Lake had gotten a huge break as assistant defensive backs coach for Tampa Bay. He was helping to fill enormous shoes. Morris had been the previous assistant DBs coach, but he left to become the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. The lead position coach was Mike Tomlin, who was off to become the defensive coordinator with the Vikings before going on to become the head coach for the Steelers.

After the 2006 season, Tomlin’s replacement, Greg Burns, was fired. Lake sought the promotion, but Morris got the job, coming back from Kansas State.

Morris “comes into my office, shakes my hand and says, ‘Hey, Jimmy, my name’s Raheem Morris. I know you wanted this job, but we’re going to do this thing together,’” Lake said. “And right from that point, we were a bond. He took me under his wing. He showed me all the ropes of how him and Mike Tomlin ran that (group) since 2002, and the amount of information that I learned from him was just invaluable.”

Morris and Lake’s work together for one year in the 2007 season helped Lake get the job as defensive backs coach in Detroit, but that lasted only a season. The Lions were 0-16 in 2008, prompting a coaching change. Having just played a leading role with one of the worst defenses in NFL history, Lake did not coach in 2009.

Who gave Lake a job?

Morris, then the head coach of the Buccaneers, making Lake his defensive backs coach. That lasted for two years before Morris was axed after his third season.

They went their separate ways, Lake to college football and Morris moving about the NFL, including six seasons with the Falcons with Dan Quinn. He landed with the Rams in 2021 as defensive coordinator, helping Los Angeles win the Super Bowl in his first season.

Lake also was making it big, being named the Washington head coach in December 2019 after Chris Petersen’s surprising decision to step down. It did not last, though. The Huskies were 3-1 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and began the 2021 season in the Top 25. But they started 2-4, including a home loss to FCS Montana.

In the Huskies’ game against Oregon, a scuffle broke out on the Washington sideline. Lake charged at the Huskies player involved, appeared to strike him in the facemask and then shoved him after the player turned his back on the coach. Lake said after the game that he did not strike the player and that he was trying to break up an altercation.

Lake was suspended for one game and was told in a letter by then-athletic director Jen Cohen that his actions “constitute a serious misconduct, abusing a student-athlete on your team,” according to a report in The Athletic. He was fired after the suspension ended. Before the firing, the Seattle Times reported that, at halftime of a 2019 game (when Lake was defensive coordinator), he pushed a player into a locker. Lake denied the allegation, attributed to five unnamed eyewitnesses. Interpretations of Lake’s forcefulness varied. One other player told the Times that no altercation happened.

While Lake’s contract stipulated that he would not receive buyout money if he injured, abused or endangered others, he was fired without cause, entitling him to his full $9.9 million, according to The Athletic.

“There’s a lot of things that I wish would have changed,” Lake said Wednesday, in what apparently were his first public comments about his time at Washington. “I know we didn’t win enough.”

He steered clear of a question asking him for comment specifically about the circumstances of his dismissal, saying, “I think we were very proud of the roster that we assembled there” and that he loved hearing from players and families this past season, when the Huskies reached the College Football Playoff Championship game.

Unsurprisingly, Lake did not coach in 2022, visiting NFL teams and putting out word that he wanted to return to the professional game, although he surely wouldn’t have had much chance to stay at the college level. (He said Wednesday that becoming a defensive coordinator in the NFL has been his dream.)

And Morris again reached out on his behalf.

Morris introduced Lake to Rams coach Sean McVay, who gave him a job for the 2023 season as assistant head coach. His role was to help the offense understand the opposing defenses and how to attack them. After being fired in disgrace, Lake (through Morris) got a seat close to the brilliant McVay, a golden opportunity that a lot of coaches would give their right arm for.

And then, when Morris was hired by the Falcons, he tapped Lake yet again, this time to run his defense. When asked last week to discuss his hires of Lake and offensive coordinator Zac Robinson, Morris said that he and Lake shared core beliefs, that Lake had climbed the coaching ladder and shown “the ability to go through some hard times, fighting through some things.”

Interestingly, Morris’ endorsement of Lake paled in comparison to his praise of Robinson.

Lake’s defenses put up excellent numbers at Washington in 2018-19, largely maintaining the standards that the Huskies previously achieved. On Wednesday, he spoke of a defense that will be fast and physical and play a scheme that is easy to understand but complex for the opposition.

What is most affirming, though, is that Morris, in the most important hour of his career, has called on him again.