ATLANTA (AP) — Three years ago, the Atlanta Falcons passed on a chance to make Raheem Morris their head coach.
They didn’t let him get away this time -- even after an exhaustive search that included six-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick.
The Falcons hired the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator on Thursday, bringing back a familiar name who served as Atlanta's interim coach for the final 11 games of the 2020 season after Dan Quinn was fired.
The 47-year-old Morris was hired by the Falcons after 14 candidates were interviewed, with Belichick the most notable among them. Earlier Thursday, the team conducted a second interview with Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik.
In the end, the Falcons decided to go with an experienced coach who has been in the league all but one season going back to 2002, including a three-year stint as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He previously worked in Atlanta from 2015-2020.
Morris becomes the first non-interim Black coach in Falcons history and joins general manager Terry Fontenot, who also is Black, in leading a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017.
The hiring ensures there will be at least nine minority head coaches to start the 2024 season, the most ever.
“This is a historic day for the Atlanta Falcons,” owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. “Raheem emerged from a field of excellent candidates and is the right leader to take our team into the future.”
Blank also revealed a change in the leadership structure of the Falcons to become more involved with the daily football operations. Fontenot and Morris will each report directly to the 81-year-old owner instead of CEO Rich McKay, as was the case with Fontenot and previous coach Arthur Smith.
McKay, a former Falcons GM, will now be limited to representing the team in league matters.
After being passed over for the Falcons job following the 2020 season in favor of Smith, Morris moved to the Rams. He spent three seasons as that team's defensive coordinator, a tenure that included a Super Bowl championship his first year.
Smith was fired by the Falcons shortly after their final regular-season game. He went 7-10 in each of his three seasons.
Morris was just 33 years old when he got his first head coaching job with the Buccaneers in 2009. He lasted three seasons, finishing with one winning season, no playoff appearances and a record of 17-31.
During his previous time in Atlanta, Morris worked on both sides of the line as a pass game coordinator, receivers coach and secondary coach under Quinn. He was promoted to defensive coordinator ahead of the 2020 season, and moved up to interim coach after an 0-5 start led to Quinn's firing.
Morris guided the Falcons to a 4-7 mark the rest of the season, leaving his career record at 21-38. He was the first of seven candidates to interview for the full-time job that eventually went to Smith, who was offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.
This time, the Falcons picked Morris.
“We have conducted one of the most thorough and comprehensive searches and saw many incredible candidates through this process,” Fontenot said. “Raheem is the right fit for our team, culture, and shared vision for success in Atlanta. I cannot wait to start working with him and have his energy in our building."
Morris inherits a team that has undergone a major makeover since he last coached in Atlanta, though it still hasn’t produced a winning record. They have used their last three first-round picks on offensive players Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson, while spending big in free agency to bulk up the defense.
But the major issue facing the new coach is the same one that bedeviled his predecessor: Who plays quarterback?
Smith went back and forth between Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke, who combined for 17 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, making it imperative that the Falcons upgrade the most important position on the field either through the draft, a trade or free agency.
Morris is just the second coach in Atlanta history to get two stints as the team's head coach. Marion Campbell held the job from 1974-76 and returned to the post from 1987-89, failing to produce a winning season in either tenure.
The hiring of Morris came as something of a surprise, given the team’s clear interest in a coach of Belichick’s stature and its interviews with several youthful assistants, including Slowik, who were considered rising stars.
It will be especially interesting to see how the new coach is viewed by a fan base that had grown increasingly apathetic in the midst of six straight losing seasons and the Falcons’ failure to produce a Super Bowl title over their 58-year history.
Many thought Blank would go for a big name, given the thousands of empty seats that have become the norm at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Rams general manager Les Snead raved about Morris' impact on a team that returned to the playoffs this season after missing out in 2022. The GM noted his experience coaching both offense and defense.
“There’s not many coaches in the planet who has been in both of those rooms," Snead said. "He’s going to give any organization an edge in just how collaborative he is. It’s going to be an edge most teams won’t be able to compete with.”
Blank said Morris' tenure in Los Angeles helped persuade the Falcons that he's the right man for the job this time around.
“His time in LA has given him an enhanced perspective on everything from personnel, team operations, game planning, working with an outstanding offensive staff and many other things that have helped him develop into an even more prepared coach in all aspects of the game,” Blank said.
Under Morris this past season, the Rams’ defense ranked 20th in yards allowed (337.9 per game), 13th in passing yards (231.1), 12th in rushing yards (106.8) and 18th in scoring defense (22.3 points per game).
Morris is the fourth minority hire during this coaching cycle, joining Dave Canales in Carolina, Jerod Mayo in New England and Antonio Pierce in Las Vegas. The league's minority coaches also include Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Houston’s DeMeco Ryans, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles, Miami’s Mike McDaniel and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh.
“This is a major milestone for the National Football League," said Richard Lapchick, founder of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport (TIDES).
The Falcons seemed to be closing in on Belichick as their next coach after he flew into Atlanta on one of Blank’s private jets for a second interview last Friday.
But it wasn’t clear how he might mesh with Fontenot, who the Falcons decided to keep as GM after dumping Smith.
Blank insisted right from the start that Fontenot would retain in charge of personnel matters. That would have been a big change for Belichick, who had total control over all football-related issues during his tenure in New England.
But, while speculation about Belichick swirled, the Falcons made it clear they were considering a large group of candidates that also included former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who wound up taking an offer from the Los Angeles Chargers, and ex-Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Tampa, Florida, and AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Atlanta and Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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