ATLANTA — Raheem Morris will be introduced Monday as Atlanta’s 14th full-time head coach (19th if you’re counting interims, of which Morris was one). He will sit inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium at a table flanked by smiling faces, but Morris’ will stand out and Falcons fans will swoon.
That’s Cadillac Williams’ prediction.
“He has this big, bright smile,” Williams said. “That right there captivates you.”
Morris was hired Jan. 25, three weeks into an Atlanta coaching search that included interviews with 14 candidates, including six-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick, college football national championship winner Jim Harbaugh and former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.
Morris, who has a 21-38 record as a head coach, emerged from that group through the force of a personality that has made him one of the most well-liked and most-endorsed coaches in the league.
Brett Jewkes, the executive vice president for communications for the (Arthur) Blank Family of Businesses, described Morris’ first interview with the Falcons as “electric.”
We have hired Raheem Morris as our head coach
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) January 26, 2024
Former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn called Morris the “rare both.”
“The first thing I would say about him is there are a lot of really good coaches scheme-wise and there’s a lot of good coaches who are connectors of people, player to coach, coach to coach. He can do both,” Quinn said. “Not every coach can do that, have the teaching skills, the connecting and the scheme to go along with that. The best of the best have that.”
Why the Falcons’ hiring of Raheem Morris is a hit within the organization and beyond
Williams felt all of that immediately when he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005. He was the running back the Bucs took with the fifth pick of the draft that year, and Morris was the Buccaneers’ assistant defensive backs coach.
“I can just remember guys in the locker room, including myself, gravitating toward him whether you were on defense or offense or a guy just trying to make the team. He was one of those guys that had that charisma about him,” Williams said. “He’s a guy who can lead men in the right direction, and you get that feel. My time with him was awesome.”
Mohamed Sanu saw it, too. Morris was the Falcons’ wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator when Sanu joined the team in 2016.
“He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever played for. He’s a great coach overall, great communicator, knows how to get the best out of his players,” said Sanu, who caught 225 passes in four years in Atlanta. “He’s able to connect with everybody in their own unique way. He has his own connections with each and every person and makes everyone feel important.”
Morris’ charisma is his calling card, his former players say.
“His charisma is him caring, him taking time out to talk to the custodian or chop it up with the free-agent guy or the practice squad guy,” said Williams, who coached at Auburn from 2019 through 2023. “You can’t treat everybody the same, but you can treat people with love and kindness. The same way he’s going to treat Arthur Blank and the general manager and the coaches, he’s going to take that same approach with people in the community. He’s outgoing, he’s loving, he’s very caring.”
That’s why endorsements for Morris to get the Falcons job, or any head-coaching job, started piling up as soon as the Los Angeles Rams’ season ended.
Rams president Kevin Demoff called Morris “one of the best leaders and culture builders I’ve ever been around” during a January podcast appearance with Peter Schrager of Fox Sports and NFL Network.
“This is the guy who makes your building better,” Demoff said. “He’s the glue guy who brings your building together, and the guy can coach.”
Longtime NFL journalist Peter King called Morris the “definition of a leader of men” on NBC Sports.
“Raheem Morris is in the top five of people I have ever covered who players A) love to play for and B) respond to,” said King, who has covered the league for more than 35 years.
That connection with his players has engendered a fierce loyalty among Morris players through all of his stops — which include Tampa Bay (2002-2005 as defensive assistant and assistant defensive backs coach), Kansas State (2006 as defensive coordinator), Tampa Bay again (2007-2011 as defensive backs coach and then head coach), Washington (2012-2014 as defensive backs coach), Atlanta (2015-2020 as defensive pass game coordinator, wide receivers coach, offensive pass game coordinator, defensive coordinator and interim head coach) and Los Angeles (2021-2023 as Rams defensive coordinator).
How will the Falcons offense change under new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson?
Midway through the 2023 season, when the Rams’ defensive performance was being criticized, cornerback Jalen Ramsey called any questioning of Morris’ ability “dumbass criticism.” The Rams were 18th in the NFL in defensive EPA per snap in the three seasons Morris coordinated the defense, according to TruMedia.
“Rah is fire, for real,” Ramsey said. “The fact that he’s not a head coach is a blessing to us in that defensive room. Rah is the real (expletive) deal, I am not even lying to you. I am passionate about that (expletive). Rah is like that, his play calling, the way he allows us to play free, fast with no fear, the confidence he puts in each of us. We have great players, and he’s still teaching us things.”
The Falcons were 26th in the league in defensive EPA per snap in 2020, Morris’ one season as defensive coordinator in Atlanta. His Buccaneers teams from 2009 to 2011 were 31st during his time there.
“I think his football knowledge speaks for itself,” Williams said. “What stood out was his energy and enthusiasm, the way that he cared about people.”
Morris’ old boss believes all of his past experiences, good and bad, have prepared him for this moment, and his old boss would know. Quinn hired Morris, then a defensive backs coach in Washington, to be his assistant head coach, defensive backs coach and defensive pass game coordinator when he became the Falcons’ head coach in 2015.
Quinn, who was fired in Atlanta after an 0-5 start to the 2020 season, also is getting his second chance this year. He was hired as the Commanders’ head coach Thursday.
“There’s a ton that you learn,” Quinn said. “Those are the scars that you have to go through to show that your next lap you are really ready to go do it. He has those scars and can go show, ‘What was once a scar, I’m now better for it.’”
After one year coaching defense under Quinn in Atlanta, Morris moved to the offensive side of the ball, where he coached wide receivers for the next three seasons. It’s not a move Quinn would have considered with most assistant coaches.
“It was more because of his rareness in being able to connect with people. I think that’s a really big deal,” Quinn said. “That’s super unique in our league. Almost every coach you wish could do it because it’s that valuable. It definitely paid dividends.”
The coach Morris worked under on the Falcons’ offensive staff was plenty impressed.
“The fact that he was on defense and could come be our wide receivers coach and do so good was unbelievable,” said San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator in 2016. “More than happy for Raheem.”
‘It can’t be ego-driven’: How Raheem Morris hopes to take over the Rams’ defense, make an impact along the way
Sanu signed with Atlanta just in time for Morris’ first year with the offensive staff.
“I knew he was a defensive coach, but you couldn’t tell being in the (wide receivers) room,” he said. “It seemed like it was seamless. He was able to break down information for us from a defensive perspective. He was able to help us attack the defensive backs better.”
Morris’ second chance to be a head coach was “way past due,” Shanahan said.
“I always tried to get him (to San Francisco) every single year,” he said. “Raheem is one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with.”
Along with working with Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta, Morris also has worked for or with Rams head coach Sean McVay, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and former Buccaneers and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.
“He’s a rare, rare, rare connector and very rare scheme-wise,” Quinn said. “Very few people were born to be a captain or a leader, but he is.”
(Top photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)