The last 12 years have been a course of trial and error for Raheem Morris.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Jon Gruden in January 2009, the 32-year-old Morris took over head coaching duties. He had been elevated to defensive coordinator just one month earlier. It was a job he held for three seasons en route to a 17-31 record before the Bucs moved on in 2012.
Morris had a young team and he, too, was young. His coaching acumen was never the issue, but he struggled at times to hold players accountable -- particularly Aqib Talib after a handful of on- and off-the-field incidents. Those three seasons had a ton of highs and lows, from the Bucs starting 0-7 in Morris’ first season and finishing 3-13 to Tampa’s 10-6 mark in 2010, the best seven-game turnaround in franchise history for a team that just missed the postseason.
The last 12 years have provided Morris, who was named the interim head coach of the Atlanta Falcons after Dan Quinn was fired on Oct. 11, with the learning experiences necessary to do things differently this time around.
“You learn things and you develop every day,” Morris said. “You learn from different people in your profession. ... You take those things, every single day, and you throw it at the dartboard.
"You look at it and you find out what works for you and how you’re going to go about your business and how are you going to go about your preparation, your daily routine and what you want to do. What is your process to winning? Follow those things to the T and the results will happen. I’ve seen it happen before.”
Morris’ process paid off in Week 6 after the Falcons built a 23-0 lead on the Minnesota Vikings on the way to their first victory of the season after an 0-5 start.
Since 1960, the win-loss record for interim head coaches in their first game was 31-60-1. Morris bucked that trend, too, and looked impressive on the way to victory. Sure, the Vikings are in the midst of a lost season and put together a disastrous performance, but the Falcons managed to dismantle Minnesota in a way that reflects well on Morris. And unlike in previous weeks when the Falcons jumped out to a strong start, they didn’t give away the lead on the way to a 40-23 victory.
The Falcons limited Minnesota to converting 3 of 10 third downs, held a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession, intercepted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins three times and went 3-for-3 on fourth downs. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had 371 yards passing and four touchdowns and Julio Jones caught eight passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
The Falcons showed up in Week 6 in ways they hadn’t before Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired. The Falcons also had to adjust to a condensed week, as a COVID-19 scare lost them a day of practice.
That, too, reflects well on Morris and the players who picked up the pieces of a broken season to pull off a statement win for a coach they’ve long respected.
“He came here in 2015 and has really coached on both sides of the ball and has touched so many guys on both sides of the ball and understands, from a scheme side, really what we’re doing on both sides,” Ryan said.
“That helps in terms of being the head guy now, just his understanding of all of that, and he knows guys. He knows guys from coaching on both sides, how to get the best out of guys, what buttons to push, those kind of things that are so important.”
Added Jones: “Raheem, he just challenged us this to go out there and put our best ball out there on display. He challenged us to be us. We had some adversity throughout the week, and that’s going to happen. Just like the game. Adversity is going to come. Depends on how you deal with it.”
Morris has 10 more opportunities to show that this team can improve upon their calamitous start, 10 more chances to show why he deserves to have the interim tag removed from his title following the 2020 season.
Does he need to rattle off 10 straight wins to get there? Probably not. But a turnaround and strong finish would show Atlanta and any other team that will be looking for its next head coach that Morris should be in the pool of candidates.
After taking over coaching the secondary and defensive playcalling duties following Atlanta’s Week 9 bye last season, the Falcons did the following in Weeks 10-17:
Had 16 takeaways, which was tied with the Seahawks and Steelers for the second-most in the NFL
Ranked ninth in defensive efficiency in that span after ranking dead last in Weeks 1-9
Allowed the lowest third-down conversion rate at 25.8%
Allowed the third-lowest Total QBR at 39.2, and their 10 interceptions were tied with five other teams for the most in that span
Morris has been the catalyst for change before. Now he has the rest of the season to do it with the Falcons and audition for his second chance as a head coach.