The case for Raheem Morris to be Falcons head coach

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris works during the first half  against the Saints, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Saints won 21-16. (Danny Karnik/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris works during the first half against the Saints, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Saints won 21-16. (Danny Karnik/AP)

There’s no need to explain why Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants to hire Bill Belichick to be his team’s next head coach. Every team with an opening will pursue Belichick after he parted ways with the Patriots. No other coach can come close to matching Belichick’s resume, though I don’t see him as a good fit for the Falcons (more on that later).

The Falcons also want to interview Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. He held the same position for the Falcons before becoming interim head coach after Dan Quinn was fired during the 2020 season. Morris did much better with that team than Quinn. I think he’d do well as the next Falcons head coach.

Morris has Quinn’s touch with fostering team camaraderie and a similar track record with guiding great defenses. Blank would just have to be sure not to let Morris have too much influence on the draft, like he once did with Quinn. Let Morris focus on coaching and he’s likely to lift the Falcons like he did in the wake of Quinn’s firing, when he was 4-7 after Quinn was 0-5.

The Rams will play the Lions in the NFL wild-card round Sunday in Detroit. Morris oversees a defense that hit its stride following the bye week. The Rams won seven of their past eight games while allowing 21.6 points per game. That includes the outlier of Baltimore’s high-powered offense scoring 36 points in an overtime victory.

Rams coach Sean McVay credits Morris for helping the team’s young defense improve.

“He’s been the same great coach that I’ve always known,” McVay told reporters. “He’s a great leader. He elevates people and situations that he’s a part of, and I think that’s the greatest sign of leadership.

“We always talk about trying to help guys reach and realize their highest potential. I think we’re seeing a lot of growth and development from a lot of people that he has an influence on.”

The Commanders and Chargers also have asked to interview Morris. He would be a good get for the Falcons. I say that while knowing it’s difficult to predict these things.

You can look at a candidate’s track record as a coach. You can listen to what his former players and coaching colleagues say about him. But there are so many variables (including luck) that’s it’s hard to know how a head coach will fare with his new team. That’s why Morris’ 17-31 record as Bucs head coach from 2009-11 doesn’t necessarily mean he’d produce poor results with the Falcons.

The Bucs were in freefall when Morris got the job in 2009. They ended the 2008 season with four consecutive losses under coach Jon Gruden, mostly because of defensive collapses. The Bucs were 3-13 in Morris’ first season as coach. They finished 10-6 in 2010, which was good for only third in the NFC South back then (Mike Smith’s Falcons won the division with a 13-3 record).

The seven-game improvement from year-to-year was the most in franchise history. Morris was fired after the Bucs finished 4-12 in 2011 with the league’s youngest team. The team’s ownership was criticized at the time for an unwillingness to spend on free agents. Morris would enter a better situation as Falcons head coach.

The team’s roster includes young offensive players with talent and several good, experienced defensive players. The Falcons shouldn’t be forced to shed important players because of the salary cap. They surely will go all-out to acquire a top quarterback prospect in the draft or a good veteran via trade. If the Falcons don’t do that, then it will be difficult for Morris, Belichick any other coach to do better than Arthur Smith.

When Blank hired Smith, he was following the NFL trend of hiring candidates who were hot names among offensive coordinators. Now more coaches with defensive backgrounds are getting a chance. During the 2022 and 2023 cycles, four of the 10 open head-coach positions were filled by defensive coaches. The Patriots replaced Belichick with the team’s defensive coordinator, Jerod Mayo.

Morris can help the Falcons finally field an elite defense (he also was Quinn’s wide receivers coach for three-plus seasons). The Falcons were better defensively in 2023, but I argued they weren’t as good as their points allowed ranking indicated for much of the season. Sure enough, the seams started to show late in the year.

Blank acknowledged the slide after he fired Smith.

“There’s no question the league is leaning toward a more offensive-minded play these days. ... but you have to have a great defense to play competitively,” Blank said. “We had a very good defense this year. It wasn’t consistently great, and certainly had its moments of stress in the last four or five games.”

After Blank passed over Morris to hire Smith, the Rams hired Morris to replace Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator. Morris has helped that unit continue to be among the league’s best.

In 2020, the Rams ranked No. 1 in points allowed (18.5 per game) and No. 3 in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, which is efficiency adjusted for opponent and situation). L.A.’s defense was expected to fall off in 2021. Stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey returned, but several key players departed. New defensive coordinator Morris would have to rely on more young players.

The 2021 Rams ranked 16th in points allowed, but third in defensive DVOA. The group got better late in the season. The Rams beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game while limiting them to 282 yards and 17 points. The Bengals managed only 226 yards during the 23-20 loss to the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Morris also helped the Falcons turn their defense around after Blank fired Quinn. They ranked 30th in points allowed (32.2 per game) at the time. They finished 19th. The 2020 Falcons allowed 30 points or more four times in the first five games. That happened twice over the final 11 games. Both games were against Tom Brady’s Bucs.

My belief that Morris would be a good head coach for the Falcons is contingent on the team acquiring the right quarterback and pairing him with a good offensive coordinator. But the same thing would be true if the Falcons hired Belichick, also a defensive guy.

Belichick lucked into getting Tom Brady as his quarterback. Without Brady, Belichick’s teams ranked in the bottom half of the league offensively. Quarterback Mac Jones, the No. 15 overall draft pick in 2021, has floundered after a promising rookie season. It’s risky for the Falcons to entrust Belichick with developing their next quarterback.

The other reason why Belichick wouldn’t be a good fit is that he presumably would want significant personnel power. The Pats got worse at picking players, especially on offense, as Belichick had more say. The Falcons are better off with Terry Fontenot making those calls for the next coach.

That coach will be Belichick if Blank gets his way. If Blank pulls it off, it would be considered a home run. There are many good, obvious reasons for that. But I think would be good for the Falcons if Blank ends up hiring Morris to be the head coach.

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