Opinion: Raheem Morris’ quest for redemption leads Falcons interim coach to long-sought opportunity

After eight seasons, multiple location changes and even more switching of hats, Raheem Morris finally has gotten another opportunity to prove himself as an NFL head coach.

This second chance — as interim coach of the Atlanta Falcons — may not have come in the fashion that 44-year-old Morris envisioned. And many may view taking on an 0-5 squad with an aging quarterback, injured stars and ill-fitting pieces on defense as an undesirable assignment.

But Morris, elevated from defensive coordinator earlier this week after Atlanta fired Dan Quinn, is choosing to focus squarely on the task at hand.

“I'm the head coach right now of the Atlanta Falcons. I've got 11 games guaranteed to do that, and as a coach, fortunately for us, we focus on one game at a time, and our focus is to win one game and go 1-0 for the next 11 weeks,” Morris told reporters earlier this week. “We're completely focused on the Minnesota Vikings this week because the Minnesota Vikings don't care about me going 11-0. They're trying to get a win against us and we're trying to get a win against them. That's it.”

That’s really the only approach that Morris can take, especially if he wants to secure a permanent head coaching position, whether with the Falcons or some other team.

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In this Dec. 20, 2015, file photo, Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris watches warmups before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP)

Once one of the youngest head coaches in modern NFL history at 32 in 2009, Morris assumed the reins of the rebuilding Tampa Bay Buccaneers following Jon Gruden's firing. After a 3-13 debut season, Morris guided a young Bucs team with six rookies serving as regular starters to a 10-6 campaign. But after a 4-12 collapse the following season, he was fired.

Morris has longed for another shot at running a team, but he knows second chances for coaches with a losing record, and especially for coaches of color – who often are forced to operate according to a different standard – don’t come easily in the NFL. So, while biding his time, Morris made a series of calculated moves and now finds himself in a prime position to showcase his growth to prospective employers. 

In Tampa, Morris was viewed as a bright defensive mind as he rapidly rose from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to head coach. His dismissal from the Bucs amid criticisms of maturity issues and getting too close to players didn't change perspectives of him in the coaching ranks. 

He quickly landed a job coaching defensive backs under Mike Shanahan in Washington in 2012. Leslie Frazier tried to change his mind and bring him to Minnesota as his defensive coordinator, but Morris believed he should honor his initial commitment. The chance to learn under a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach like Shanahan, and reunite with fellow former Bucs assistant coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, appealed to him.

Three seasons later, another previous relationship led to a higher title as Morris followed Dan Quinn, who was a defensive assistant coach during Morris' time at Hofstra, to Atlanta as defensive passing game coordinator/assistant head coach. Kyle Shanahan had also landed a job as offensive coordinator of that Falcons team.

But with an eye on his future and the climate of the NFL coaching market, where offensive coaches are the significantly more popular choice in recent years, Morris felt a need to continue his growth. He switched to the offensive side of the ball to coach the wide receivers for three seasons. When Shanahan left Atlanta to take the San Francisco 49ers' head coaching job, he tried to take Morris with him, two people familiar with his plans told USA TODAY Sports on condition anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of either team. However, Quinn deemed Morris too valuable because of his many responsibilities within the Falcons organization and blocked him from jumping ship.

Morris returned to the defense last season, helping Quinn fill voids on his coaching staff after a midseason staff reconfiguration as the Falcons tried to rebound from a 1-7 start. Morris helped spark a defensive turnaround, and the Falcons rebounded with a 6-2 finish to the season.

But struggles returned this season and Quinn paid the price.

Now, 11 years after his first head coaching job, Morris has matured as a person and a coach, is well-versed in both phases of the game and possesses a clearer vision of what it takes to lead. 

He also has now positioned himself for NFL owners and general managers to more seriously consider him for another full-time head coaching opportunity.

The challenges abound for the Falcons. Matt Ryan's effectiveness has waned, as the quarterback sports his lowest completion percentage (63.2%) since 2011 and his worst passer rating (90.2) in six years. After a series of poor draft classes, Atlanta has significant holes on a defense that has surrendered 32.2 points per game. 

Although Quinn remained well-respected by his players, something with his message was missing its mark. Morris now faces the task of infusing the same locker room with life and coaxing better effort, focus and execution.

No NFL team has rebounded from an 0-5 start to make the playoffs. And few interim coaches manage to even post winning records in their stints. Asked about the legitimacy of Morris’ chances of earning consideration for the Falcons’ job in the long term, team owner Arthur Blank told reporters “Absolutely. If Raheem ends up 11-0, he’s going to be certainly a candidate.” Given that stance and considering the challenges of turning the Falcons aroundwhile coaching amid a pandemic, Morris seemingly would have an impossible situation on his hands.

But the coach isn’t allowing himself to focus on what’s next. Success now, in his most tangible opportunity to prove his worthiness yet, could pave the way for the return to the head coaching ranks that Morris has long desired.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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