As Falcons improve, Raheem Morris showing he's a serious head-coaching candidate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It won’t be easy because it’s a difficult remaining schedule, but the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) could still finish with a winning record and possibly make the playoffs.

That would have seemed absurd in mid-October when the team was 0-5, causing owner Arthur Blank to fire GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn.

But the Falcons have gone 4-2 under interim head coach Raheem Morris. They’re playing better defensively overall, have forced more turnovers and are gaining confidence. Their last game was their best: a 43-6 rout of the Las Vegas Raiders.

All of which leads to this: Should Morris, who is in his sixth season with the Falcons, be a serious candidate as the full-time replacement for Quinn? That idea seems to be gaining momentum inside the locker room, at least.

“We all support him,” quarterback Matt Ryan said when asked if he felt support growing for Morris. “I mean, there’s no doubt about it. He’s been with us; [he’s] in his sixth year with our organization. Coached on both sides [of the ball]. So he’s got a tremendous amount of respect from everybody in our locker room.

“We think he’s a great coach and he’s done a great job the last six weeks.”

There’s no question the Falcons have played better since the coaching change. They are averaging 4.4 more points per game on offense and are giving up 12.2 points fewer per game under Morris, who was in his first season as the team’s defensive coordinator when the coaching change was made.

That’s a significant difference, especially when you put it this way: The defense is allowing nearly two fewer TDs per game.

That’s the main reason the Falcons’ plus-53 point differential under Morris ranks fifth in the league over the past seven weeks. That and the fact that the defense has forced 11 turnovers in six games, including five against the Raiders.

“It’s definitely a work in progress,” linebacker Foye Oluokun said. “We can always get better. Obviously we got a lot of turnovers last week [against Las Vegas]. There’s still stuff to clean up, so we’re going to come out and try to be a better defense for the next week.”

An interim head coach earning the permanent job is actually pretty common: Seven of the 27 interim head coaches over the last 15 years have gone on to do so, per ESPN Stats & Information. The latest to do it was Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone, who went 1-1 as the replacement for Gus Bradley in 2016. He was retained by executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin and led the Jaguars to the AFC South title and surprising run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017.

Only two other coaches that got the permanent job in the last 15 years went on to lead their teams to the playoffs. Mike Mularkey went 2-7 as interim coach with Tennessee in 2015 and had the Titans in the playoffs in 2017. Leslie Frazier went 3-3 with Minnesota in 2010 and had the Vikings in the playoffs in 2012.

As for Morris’ situation, things obviously still need to play out. The Falcons still must hire a GM and owners generally allow the new GM to hire the head coach, so even if Morris leads the Falcons to an 8-8 or 9-7 record, there’s still a possibility the new GM would like to go in a different direction.

Or they could opt to keep Morris. He’s regarded as a bright defensive mind, has previous head coaching experience (2009-11 in Tampa Bay, including a 10-6 record in 2010), and the players are clearly responding to him.

Morris, however, isn’t looking at the previous six games or the next five as an audition.

“This question has been posed for the last seven weeks or six weeks, whatever it’s been, in different formats and different forms, and my answer remains the same: We have the 1-0 mentality and that’s just the way we’re going to do it,” Morris said. “So this week we’ve got to go 1-0 versus the Saints. Last week we had to go 1-0 vs. [Las Vegas]. And that’ll continue throughout the process.

“If you worry about what could happen or what might happen, you won’t be able to take advantage of the moment that’s happening right in front of you.”