ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons took a long time to introduce Raheem Morris after hiring him, but they took almost no time at his official introduction to set high expectations for his tenure.
“He has two (Super Bowl) rings, and we’re going to get him another one,” general manager Terry Fontenot said.
The Falcons interviewed 14 candidates for their opening, but no one knows how fraught that statement sounds to the fan base as well as Morris, who was on the sideline for the franchise’s lowest moment, losing Super Bowl LI after building a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots.
“That loss stings worse than any loss I have ever had,” Morris said Monday when he was introduced at Mercedes-Benz Stadium 11 days after being hired to replace Arthur Smith and become the 14th full-time coach in team history.
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That was the only hint of bitterness during the day, though, as the relentlessly positive Morris promised to “shake this crowd up and have some fun” before taking questions from the media. Fontenot had not met Morris in person before interviewing him for this job but remembered a quote from Morris’ introductory news conference when he was named the Buccaneers head coach in January of 2009.
“He said it’s a mentality before it’s a reality,” Fontenot said.
“Man, I did say that,” said Morris, who won Super Bowl XXXVII as an assistant in Tampa Bay and Super Bowl LVI as the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. “That was a cool statement.”
He’s hopeful it’s also enough to revive a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2017.
“I can’t wait to go back (to the Super Bowl) again, and I can’t wait to do it with you,” Morris said.
Morris was 17-31 in three seasons as the Bucs’ head coach and then 4-7 as the interim head coach in Atlanta, where he worked as a defensive and offensive assistant under Dan Quinn from 2015 until Quinn was fired in 2020.
Morris will be a more collaborative head coach than he was in Tampa Bay, he said Monday.
“When you’re 32 years old, you got all the answers. Just ask me and I’ll tell you. Right?” he said. “And what you find out is it’s a learning process every single day. And you better be able to lean on people and talk to people and find out what is the best thing that is going to work, right? I told (Fontenot) in my interview process, I said, ‘Hey, I don’t need to be the smartest person in the building. I want to contribute, I want to collaborate with all the smart people that you’ve assembled.’”
Team owner Arthur Blank did not attend Monday’s news conference because of what his spokesman described as “a minor medical issue.” Blank watched from his home and intends to travel to the Super Bowl and speak to reporters about the process that led to Morris’ hiring later this week.
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One thing Blank certainly will be asked about is the candidacy of Bill Belichick. The former New England Patriots head coach, who needs 15 more victories to become the winningest coach in league history, interviewed with the Falcons twice during the process.
“Coach Belichick was obviously a very serious candidate,” said Falcons team president Greg Beadles, who spoke in Blank’s place. “You can’t have anything but respect for what he has done. At the end of the day, it was about what was the best fit for us.”
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The Falcons ran a “very thorough” process during which it was “very clear that there was one person who stood out and that was Raheem Morris,” Fontenot said. Fontenot cited Morris’ “infectious energy” and “collaborative mindset” as attributes that helped him stand out.
“In this profession, you’re always going against the very best,” Morris said when asked about interviewing for the same job as Belichick. “You have a process in place, and you go through it and let the best man win. Whatever the process may be, I’m just happy to be sitting here in front of you.”
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A place at the table
Fontenot may be the big winner in this coaching search. The fourth-year general manager was not part of the news conference announcing the firing of Smith, and it was clear then that his role might be diminished depending on who was hired as head coach.
That won’t be happening with Morris in the head coaching chair. On Monday, Fontenot described their working relationship as a “partnership.” Fontenot also said he “led” the coaching search, which is a different impression than Blank gave at the beginning of the search when he said Fontenot would “have input.”
“I appreciate the trust Arthur (Blank) had in allowing me to lead that process,” Fontenot said from the podium Monday. “A lot of people put a lot of work into the process. I was empowered to lead that process. We know Arthur (Blank) made the ultimate decision.”
Falcons CEO Rich McKay was not at the podium Monday. He sat in a side section and left without talking to reporters. While Smith and Fontenot reported directly to McKay the last three seasons, Fontenot and Morris will now report directly to Blank. However, Fontenot said he still values McKay’s input.
“Rich McKay has drafted Hall of Fame players. He has hired Hall of Fame coaches,” Fontenot said. “You appreciate having that around. Having experienced people around you is really important. That said, the decision-making was always myself and Arthur Smith. Moving forward the decision-making is myself and Raheem, and we keep everyone informed.”
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The quarterback question
Morris called the Falcons’ quarterback situation “the big ol’ elephant in the back of the room” but didn’t give many hints about how it will be handled. He said the Falcons will explore free agency, trades and the draft, in which they currently have the No. 8 pick, looking for a solution.
“We’ve had very limited conversations about it right now,” he said. “We’ve had some conversations in passing. Those conversations will continue to happen.”
Morris cited “elite processing” and “decision-making” as the first two attributes he would look for at the position.
“I got a lot of confidence in the people that are going to be a part of finding that next quarterback to move us forward,” he said.
The coaching staff
Morris expects new defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake to call the defense, allowing Morris to oversee the entire team on Sundays, Morris said. Lake and new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson both will be calling plays for the first time at the NFL level.
“That wasn’t a concern because of the knowledge base that they’ve got,” Morris said. “I’ve got full confidence in both of those guys having the ability to do it.”
(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)