When Raheem Morris was the 34-year-old head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010, he used the phrase “the race to 10" to represent his goal of winning 10 games and making the playoffs during his second season.
Well, the 10-6 Buccaneers failed to make the playoffs in 2012, prompting Morris to tell the Tampa, Florida, media, “I should’ve said it’s a race to 11."
Funny how things come full circle.
When Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank addressed the media this week and was asked if Morris, 44, could get a serious look as the franchise’s permanent head coach if he fares well as the interim coach, Blank responded, “Absolutely. If Raheem ends up 11-0, he’s going to be certainly a candidate."
The race to 11 is on.
In all seriousness, Morris and the Falcons have to focus on just winning the next game before envisioning a historic rebound from this 0-5 start. Life after Dan Quinn begins Sunday in Minnesota (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against a 1-4 Vikings team that looked much better than the record indicates in last week’s 27-26 loss to 5-0 Seattle.
“I’m the head coach right now of the Atlanta Falcons [and] I’ve got 11 games guaranteed to do that," Morris said Tuesday. “As a coach, fortunately for us, we focus one game at a time. Our job is to go out and win one game and go 1-0 for the next 11 weeks.
“I am completely focused on the Minnesota Vikings and how to get our win against the Minnesota Vikings this week, because the Minnesota Vikings don’t care about me going 11-0. They care about trying to get a win against us. And we’re trying to get a win against them, period."
Morris, a former college safety, was hired by the Falcons in 2015 as the assistant head coach/defensive backs. Last year, he was in his third season working with wide receivers when he was switched back over to defense to work with the defensive backs. He also assisted in calling the defense and helped spark a second-half turnaround in which the Falcons finished 6-2 following a 1-7 start.
Morris has the needed experience on both sides of the ball. The challenge now is changing the perception of the product the winless Falcons have put on the field. It’s fair to wonder what will be different from the identity left behind by Quinn -- who was fired this week along with general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- particularly since Morris was so closely tied to Quinn.
“The message to the team is that we’ve got to go out and force our will on our opponent," Morris said. “And we’ve got to go out and we’ve got to score and get the ball back. No matter what you’re doing, if you’re on offense, your job’s to score; if you’re on defense, it’s to get the ball back; if you’re on the return unit, it’s to score; and if you’re on a coverage unit, it’s to get the ball back.
“Those things are what we’re going to have to do. And the only way you go about getting wins is to force your will on your opponent whatever it is at that time, at that moment. ... So that’s the biggest difference in what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it."
Morris already put his new power to use. He fired special-teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, who came under scrutiny after the onside kick blunder in Dallas that helped lead to a 40-39 loss to the Cowboys. Morris handed the defensive coordinator title to assistant head coach/linebackers Jeff Ulbrich, whom he called the defense with during the second half of last season and likely will do the same with moving forward. Players have praised Morris and Ulbrich as the most respected guys in the building. And Ulbrich being a coordinator gives Morris more of a chance to concentrate on other head-coaching responsibilities.
Morris made running backs coach Bernie Parmalee the new special-teams coordinator with the hope he'd provide a spark with renewed energy. Morris made game-management coordinator Will Harriger the new running backs coach, which should be an easier transition for Harriger with Todd Gurley II playing at a high level right now.
Whether Morris makes any lineup changes or tweaks to the scheme remains a mystery, although there should be more clarity on that come Sunday, if not during the week of practice.
Morris certainly emphasized how his team has to find a better way to close out games after the Falcons became the first team in NFL history to blow two 15-plus-point fourth-quarter leads in the same season. He knows the defense can't afford to keep giving up 32.2 points and 446 yards per game. He knows the offense can't continue to have games in which Matt Ryan doesn't throw touchdown passes and the offense settles for field goals in the red zone.
Morris won a Super Bowl in 2002 as a defensive quality control assistant on Jon Gruden's Buccaneers staff. Rich McKay, now Morris’ boss with the Falcons, was the Bucs' general manager that year. He should have a better feel for how to run a team, as a whole, after going 17-31 during his three seasons leading the Buccaneers (2009-11).
“Raheem has had experience as a head coach, which helps," Blank said. “He understands our systems, which helps. He has the right kind of enthusiasm to lead the players in a positive way. ... I think he’ll bring whatever new ideas and task the players in many ways they haven’t been tasked, maybe moving some folks around. That’s what happened in the middle of last year. Raheem was in the middle of a lot of that.
“I know we made the right choice with Raheem. We’ll see where it takes us. The players will definitely be supportive of him. That I do know."
Morris was asked what he wants the identity of the team to be when the Falcons step onto the field Sunday.
"You guys heard what the owner said: We've got to go out there and win football games," Morris said. "So we are focused on a winning identity. Let's go out, give our best efforts to win the football game."