Raheem Morris is back in Atlanta, and, let’s be honest, a lot of people are pretty happy about that.
There are two main reasons. For starters, the 47-year-old former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator is well liked around the league and had multiple backers in his effort to get a second chance as a head coach in the NFL. And there’s also this: He’s not Bill Belichick.
The Falcons made Morris their 14th full-time head coach Thursday. So, how did they get to the point where hiring a man who is 21-38 as a professional head coach instead of the man who is 15 wins away from becoming the winningest coach in NFL history is considered a win by so many?
A short summary: Belichick, who has 29 years of head coaching experience, was the first coach to interview twice for the job and at one point looked like the favorite, which makes sense considering he is 333-178 and has six Super Bowl rings as a head coach.
With 15 victories, Belichick would pass Don Shula for most combined regular-season and postseason victories in NFL history. Still, it became clear that his hiring would have led to a significant shakeup throughout the organization. Belichick controlled personnel decisions and pretty much every other aspect of the New England Patriots organization and expected a similar level of control in Atlanta, and he was not a fan of Falcons CEO Rich McKay’s level of control within the organization, a league source told The Athletic.
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Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot likely is the second-most relieved person in the organization after team owner Arthur Blank passed on Belichick. The Falcons expected Fontenot to retain a 50 percent voice in the building after they fired former head coach Arthur Smith, McKay said Jan. 8, but that clearly wouldn’t have happened with Belichick on the payroll.
“Terry has done an excellent job as our general manager,” Blank said Jan. 8.
At the time, McKay compared the decision to retain Fontenot while firing Smith to Atlanta’s 2014 transition in which head coach Mike Smith was fired while general manager Thomas Dimitroff was retained.
“We did that with the idea that, that would give us the best chance to win right away, and two years later we were in the Super Bowl,” McKay said. “We felt like that did serve us well because we didn’t start with two new people in powerful positions and completely re-examining the roster and doing things that might take us backwards before we go forward.”
The hiring of Morris allows the Falcons to have a similar transition, with Fontenot running the personnel department and Morris in charge of coaching and football operations. Morris and Fontenot will report directly to Blank, the Falcons announced Thursday, which is a change from last season when Fontenot and Smith reported to McKay.
Morris, who was 17-31 as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to 2011, was part of the superstar coaching staff in Washington from 2012 to 2014 that included Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who also interviewed twice for the Falcons’ head coaching job.
Morris went from Washington to the Falcons coaching staff, serving as assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator from 2015 to 2019 and then defensive coordinator in 2020.
When Dan Quinn was fired midway through the 2020 season, Morris was tabbed as interim head coach, going 4-7 to close out the season. He was considered for the full-time head-coaching position after that season but eventually landed in Los Angeles after Atlanta hired Smith.
Morris spent three seasons in Los Angeles, including the team’s victory in Super Bowl LVI, but the Rams entered this offseason believing they would lose him. In fact, Rams general manager Les Snead did his best to give Morris a glowing review during his end-of-season news conference.
“No. 1, I think we all know, (he’s a) great human being,” Snead said. “The guy is coded to respect everyone, to build a relationship with everyone no matter where you’re at in the organization. What’s awesome is, as he does that, you just see the respect flow back in his direction. He’s coded for that. It’s a superpower that I think would help any organization.”
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Snead said he expects Morris to bring an “unbelievable” coaching staff to Atlanta.
“He’s going to give any organization an edge just how collaborative he is,” Snead said. “It’s going to be an edge that most teams aren’t going to be able to compete with. Every coach who’s any good, who’s qualified, they’re going to want to work for Raheem. And I’m pretty sure there’ll be a lot of tampering charges because just about every player in the NFL’s going to text him and want to come play for him.”
McVay echoed Snead’s praise of Morris.
“He always had such a unique way about leading,” McVay said. “The guy has never had a bad day in his life, and then you get around him and you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, you can’t be like this all the time.’ And you’re like, ‘He really is like this all the time.’ He’s just got such great energy that’s so authentic.”
Morris, Belichick, Slowik and Carolina defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero all interviewed twice for the position. In total, the Falcons interviewed 14 coaches for the job, including Bills interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan (who was hired as the Titans’ head coach), Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh (who was hired as the Chargers’ head coach), Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, former Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, former Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, Ravens assistant head coach Anthony Weaver and 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
“I am overjoyed for the opportunity for my family and I to return to Atlanta as the Falcons head coach,” Morris said in a statement released by the Falcons late Thursday. “We know from firsthand experience what a first-class organization Atlanta is and what this team means to its city and its fans. I am incredibly appreciative of Arthur Blank for his leadership and for this entire organization for putting its trust in me to help lead this team. I can’t thank the Rams organization enough for the experience and opportunity with the team.”
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Though Morris’ resume is much less impressive than Belichick’s, he’s also likely to be a hit with Falcons fans, many of whom were concerned about Belichick’s handling of the Patriots’ quarterback situation after the departure of Tom Brady and Belichick’s 29-38 record in the last four seasons.
“This is a historic day for the Atlanta Falcons – after a comprehensive search we are thrilled to welcome Raheem Morris back to Atlanta as the team’s new head coach,” Blank said. “With 26 years of experience in the NFL, including the last three in an outstanding organization that has won our league’s championship in that time, Raheem emerged from a field of excellent candidates and is the right leader to take our team into the future. His time in L.A. has given him an enhanced perspective on everything from personnel, team operations, game planning, working with an outstanding offensive staff and many other things that has helped him develop into an even more prepared coach in all aspects of the game. I believe his leadership skills have grown and his understanding of what it takes to have a highly collaborative one-team culture are now at a much higher level.”
(Top photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)