Falcons coach Raheem Morris won’t win without better quarterback


Credit: AP file photo

Credit: AP file photo

Falcons owner Arthur Blank hired Raheem Morris to coach his team for a second time (this time it’s permanent-ish because, really, all NFL coaching positions are interim). Morris did good work as Rams defensive coordinator after leaving Flowery Branch. One reason Blank said he brought Morris back is because he gained an “enhanced perspective” by working with an “outstanding offensive staff” in Los Angeles.

It’s true that Rams coach Sean McVay is an offensive wiz. It’s also true that he didn’t win a Super Bowl until the Rams replaced his quarterback (Jared Goff) with a better one (Matthew Stafford). Morris won’t make the Falcons winners until they get him a better quarterback. That’s the bottom line no matter which coordinator he hires to run his offense.

It will be hard for general manager Terry Fontenot to pull that off. There are 32 NFL teams and not enough good quarterbacks to go around. For teams that don’t like their QB, like the Falcons, the mechanisms for getting another one are the draft, trades and free agency. The problem for the Falcons is their options are much more limited than they were over the past three years.

The Falcons passed on acquiring a quarterback in the draft when they had No. 4 overall pick in 2021 and the No. 8 pick in 2022 and 2023. Now they own the No. 8 pick in a draft where the best three QB prospects will be off the board by then.

The Falcons didn’t take advantage of the extraordinary chance to sign Lamar Jackson when they had massive amounts of salary-cap space last year. Now they have very limited cap space in a typically weak market for free-agent QBs.

Trading for a veteran QB involves similar risks. The advantage in comparison with the draft is that the Falcons would have information about the quarterback’s ability to play in the NFL. The disadvantage with a trade is that the Falcons would be getting a cast-off whose ceiling might be set and whose salary will eat up more cap space than a rookie.

This is the difficult landscape that Fontenot must navigate. There is no surefire formula for success. The history of quarterbacks selected in the first round includes more misses than hits. Trades and free-agency signings haven’t worked much better.

The Falcons didn’t invest in a top QB prospect in the draft. Desmond Ridder was picked in the third round, No. 74 overall, in 2022. Some of the quarterbacks they could have drafted have fared better as starters than Ridder, but that’s a low bar. The QBs who were off the board before the Falcons picked have a mixed record.

The Falcons drafted tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 pick in 2021. The first three picks were quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. Lawrence was very good in his second season, but not so good in 2023. Wilson was benched for the second time in November. The 49ers traded Lance to the Cowboys in August for a fourth-round pick.

Justin Fields and Mac Jones were available when the Falcons drafted Pitts. The Bears might use the 2024 No. 1 overall pick they acquired from Carolina to draft Fields’ replacement. Jones was benched during four different games in 2023 until Patriots coach Bill Belichick finally made Bailey Zappe the starter for good.

The Bears and Pats may decide to cut bait and trade Fields and Jones. Do the Falcons take the chance that one of those quarterbacks can thrive in their organization after they were hit-and-miss with their current teams? That’s where coaching comes in. Morris is said to favor Zac Robinson, McVay’s passing-game coordinator, to be his offensive coordinator.

I’m sure Robinson knows what he’s doing. So did Morris’ predecessor, Arthur Smith. He ultimately was sunk by the organizational decision to ride with Ridder at quarterback. The next Falcons offensive coordinator needs a better quarterback to work with. It’s risky to give him a reclamation project like Fields and Jones.

If the Falcons decide to draft a quarterback, they’ll have to trade up for the chance to nab top prospects Caleb Williams (USC), Drake Maye (North Carolina) and Jayden Daniels (LSU). The cost would be high in a seller’s market. More teams than not want a talented quarterback with a relatively cheap rookie-scale contract.

To get the No. 1 overall pick from Chicago last season, the Panthers traded wide receiver D.J. Moore along with the No. 9 overall pick in 2023, a first-round pick this year, and second-round picks in 2023 and 2024. Bryce Young had an awful rookie season for Carolina. If the Falcons traded a similar package to move up, they’d better be sure they pick the right quarterback and develop him quickly.

Free agency isn’t a good option for the Falcons to find a quality starter. Kirk Cousins is the best QB set to hit the market. He’s 35 years old, sustained a season-ending Achilles injury in October and owns one career playoff victory over eight full seasons as a starter. The Vikings still may re-sign Cousins because of the scarcity of good options.

Signing the top free-agent quarterback doesn’t provide much more certainty than drafting a top prospect. The quarterbacks who signed for the most guaranteed money over the past five years are Nick Foles, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston and Derek Carr. Brady won a Super Bowl in his first season with the Bucs and two NFC South titles after that. The other four QBs couldn’t even lead their teams to the postseason.

It’s obvious why it’s so hard for teams to find a good quarterback. It’s probably the most difficult position to play in professional sports. Talent is just part of the equation. Then there are the many factors that are out of the quarterback’s control, like supporting cast and coaching.

The Falcons were lucky to have Matt Ryan as a good quarterback for more than 10 years. Blank botched Ryan’s exit, but the Falcons still ended up with a fine stopgap option in Marcus Mariota. Believing in Ridder cost Smith his job after only three seasons.

Morris will suffer a similar fate if the Falcons don’t get a better quarterback. Without one, whatever enhanced perspective Morris gained from watching McVay’s staff work in Los Angeles won’t help him in Atlanta.