FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Raheem Morris strolled into the interview room decked in Nike gear and looking like a player who had just finished running sprints at the end of a practice.
As the cameras zeroed in during his first news conference as Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator, Morris lightened the mood by engaging in a playful exchange with a media member who had just started "juicing" for wellness. Morris discussed his plan for cleansing the defense, a plan based on pressuring opposing quarterbacks more than the Falcons have done in recent seasons.
Throughout his 10-minute football sermon, Morris preached the process of steady improvement, not expecting newly signed players to be franchise "saviors" and, most importantly, winning. The 43-year-old sounded every bit the part of a head coach without the title. But those familiar with Morris, who was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to '11, believe he’ll get another opportunity soon.
“He’s been a head coach in the league. He’s been to a Super Bowl. He’s got a lot of the things that you look for," said former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl winner-turned-analyst. "He most definitely should get an opportunity."
Morris won't campaign for another head-coaching gig. He’s aware of the lack of minority head coaches in the NFL, with close friend Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Brian Flores and Ron Rivera comprising that small group. But Morris has plenty of confidence in his skills, and he isn't oblivious to what could happen if he helps orchestrate a Falcons resurgence, like he ignited last season when he moved from receivers coach to help call the defense and work with the defensive backs. The Falcons went 6-2 in the final eight games after starting 1-7.
“I don’t know if you ever prepare to be a head coach because I think every situation that you go into will be different," Morris said. “I was fortunate enough to have one at a young age. I was given the job in Tampa [at age 32]. It was a different situation at the time. But that helped me for the move to offense for my stint in Atlanta. ...
“... All of those things prepare you for those moments, but they don’t necessarily make you ready for those moments. To get ready for those moments, you’ve got to be in those moments. To be in those moments, you’ve got to do a good job with the job you’re doing now. So if I can do a good job at the job I’m doing now, I think those moments will come, and those opportunities will come."
At least one team that had a coaching vacancy this offseason expressed strong interest in Morris, according to a source. That team, however, moved in another direction without interviewing Morris. The Falcons were aware of the potential outside interest and had an undisclosed contingency plan for if Morris were hired away. Both owner Arthur Blank and coach Dan Quinn gave him their blessing, but Morris never received an interview.
"I always believe that you want to support people in the NFL," Blank said. "The NFL is a big fraternity in many ways. You have individuals that deserve an opportunity. And if they get it, you want to give it to them.
“I think Raheem is a very fine coach. He’s been coaching for 17 years now. I think he was part of the reason for our success in the second half of last year."
'You are what your tape says you are'
The Falcons started last season with Quinn as the defensive coordinator, but he surrendered those duties to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and Morris. Morris’ midseason switch from offense to defense made a difference, as he emphasized technique and simplifying the scheme. The results were telling. Through the first eight games, the Falcons surrendered 31.3 points per game and 379.5 yards per game, allowed opponents to convert 68.8% in the red zone and 53% on third down and recorded seven sacks and two interceptions.
In the last eight games with Morris’ imprint on the defense, the Falcons surrendered 18.6 points per game and 332.1 yards per game, allowed opponents to convert 42.9% in the red zone and 25.8% on third down, tripled their sack total to 21 and had five times as many interceptions, with 10. The defensive resurgence helped persuade Blank to keep Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff in place despite another 7-9 season.
Building on that momentum and establishing an identity for his defense will be key this season.
“To have a successful defense, you guys know, is affecting the quarterback, whatever that means," Morris said. "A lot of people, when you say affect the quarterback, they automatically go right to sacks. But you’ve got to get him off the spot. You’ve got to fool him with disguise. You’ve got to get those guys to think a little bit. ...
“People ask about identity all the time. Coach Quinn talks about identity all the time. I think you’ve got to go out there and put it on tape. And you are what your tape says you are."
The tape would indicate that the Falcons need to find an edge-rusher or two to pair with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. The team severed ties with former sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. and hasn't expressed faith in erratic former first-rounder Takkarist McKinley, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Although there is a good chance the Falcons will lose linebacker De'Vondre Campbell in free agency, Ulbrich, now the assistant head coach, sees no reason Deion Jones can't evolve into the best middle linebacker in the league.
The Falcons seem ecstatic about the potential of young cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver. Morris, a safety in college at Hofstra, expects big contributions from strong safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Desmond Trufant, provided they are fully recovered from season-ending injuries. Having Neal, Damontae Kazee and Allen as a safety trio seems like a good problem, with Neal a bone-crusher in the box, Kazee a ball hawk and Allen the brains of the operation.
“Those guys finished well," Morris said of the secondary’s end to 2019. “We went out [and] won some games, which is ultimately the goal. ... Anytime you go and get that kind of win production out of the last eight, you’d say those guys played well enough to win."
Dungy was one of the first to call Morris after Tampa Bay fired him in January 2012. Morris enjoyed some success through three seasons, with a 10-6 campaign in 2010. His overall record was 17-31, including 4-12 in his final season.
Dungy, who was fired by the Buccaneers following a 9-7 playoff season, empathized with Morris.
“I told him simply this: 'Just keep improving,'" Dungy said. “Look at this as a step. Don’t look at it as an end of story.
“You look at Bill Belichick, who left Cleveland, and people wouldn’t say it was a successful run. He went on to have tremendous success. I did the same thing [with the Colts]."
There’s a distinct reason Dungy believes Morris can follow a similar path to success. He has watched Morris closely, particularly during a visit to Atlanta last season in advance of the Falcons' Thanksgiving matchup with New Orleans.
“He’s hands-on," Dungy said. “He’s a communicator. He can relate to a lot of different kinds of people. And I think the players love to play for him. That’s a skill in and of itself that’s very important.
“He took it upon himself to make himself better, moving to the offensive side of the ball. Not many people do that in the NFL."
Former Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik echoed Dungy’s words while discussing his days in Tampa with Morris.
“Truthfully, looking back, we gutted the team [of veteran players] too far. We made the job too difficult. And that’s our own fault. We bought into [young players], so that’s what we did. When I think about Raheem now, I think he deserves another chance because he’s grown a lot over the last decade. He would be a guy I would absolutely put on my radar to interview as a head coach."
Dungy firmly believes that Morris was affected by an "impatient" ownership group in Tampa Bay. His message to Morris today is to stay patient.
"Back in 1993, when I was defensive coordinator of the Vikings, the chaplain of the team gave me some great advice," Dungy said. “We had the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and there were seven jobs openings. I didn’t even get one call. And the chaplain told me, ‘Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Just do your job as well as you can, and make yourself the best assistant, the best coordinator you can be. Just be ready when the call comes.'"
Morris already seems to be living by those words.