In the NFL, new coaching hires are often a reaction to the previous guy. Raheem Morris fits that bill as the DC to replace Brandon Staley. They are opposite in one really significant way. Staley has leapfrogged the coaching pipeline and finds himself at the head of a team after only four years in the league. It came as a big shock when the Rams hired him last season. He had no resume, no proof of concept.
Meanwhile, Morris has spent years paying his dues and working his way up and down the coaching ladder. He’s seen the highest highs and the lowest lows of coaching in the NFL.
After being promoted to interim head coach in Atlanta this season, he was in consideration for the Jacksonville position as well as the permanent head coach for the Falcons. So, at this point, he seems too qualified, too prepared, to be a defensive coordinator. Nevertheless, the Rams DC vacancy has been filled by Raheem Morris.
The Rams bought into Staley because of what he could be. The Rams are moving forward with Morris because of what he has been. Morris has an impressive track record of making his squads better. Even if it is off his beaten path.
In 2016, the Falcons moved Morris from his position as defensive backs coach, which is where he has nearly all of his football experience, to coaching the wide receivers. He was wide receivers coach until 2019 and in that time the wide receivers all improved and they drafted Calvin Ridley in the first round in 2018.
Julio Jones continued to lead the pack, but Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel both put up some of the biggest numbers of their careers. Calvin Ridley topped all rookie receivers that year and was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team.
In 2016 the Falcons went 11-5 behind Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered offense which they rode into the Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan gives Morris credit for the team’s improvement saying, “Raheem has been one of the main differences this year. We couldn’t have had this success without him.”
Shanahan has been a fan of Morris going back to Kyle’s first coaching job in the NFL with Tampa Bay. In 2002, Morris was hired by Jon Gruden as a defensive quality control coach. That year the Bucs won the Super Bowl on the back of one of the best defenses in NFL history. By 2004 Morris was assistant defensive backs coach and his boss was Mike Tomlin. Shanahan had just been hired as an offensive quality control coach for the Bucs. He reached out to his dad and head coach of the Broncos, Mike Shanahan, to urge him to “Do whatever you can do to hire this Mike Tomlin guy. But if you can’t get him, you have to get his assistant, Raheem Morris. They both will be head coaches eventually.”
Of course, Shanahan wasn’t the only contact he met in Tampa. Sean McVay was hired by the Bucs in 2008. McVay was 22 at the time.
In 2006 Morris left the NFL for college. He joined Ron Prince’s Kansas State staff as defensive coordinator. Prince and Morris coached together on the Cornell squad. Morris improved the Wildcats defense across the board and the team made the only bowl game in Prince’s time as head coach. By 2007, Morris was back in the NFL.
Morris would go on to be a head coach. In 2009, a month after being promoted to DC in Tampa Bay, the Bucs would fire Gruden and promote Morris to fill the job. Morris led the team to one winning season in his three years at the helm and an overall record of 17-31.
There are a lot of reasons as to why Morris wasn’t a successful head coach, his age could have been to blame. He was 32. He was the second-youngest head coach in modern football at the time. He was also in the shadow of Jon Gruden and he faced a difficult front office, which forced coordinators on him while forcing out some of the team’s top talent. But regardless of what transpired, Morris was fired.
It would take another nine years for Morris to get another shot at head coaching. After being fired in 2011, Morris joined Washington’s coaching staff, but not as a coordinator, but once again as a defensive backs coach. The NFL wasn’t yet interested in what Morris could be, but he was demoted based on what he was, or what they thought he was. A failed head coach and inexperienced as a coordinator. But what couldn’t be denied is that he was a successful defensive backs coach.
But working his way up is nothing new for Morris. It’s a part of who he is. Even as a kid. He’s from Irvington, N.J. Which, in the ’80s and ’90s, was a hotbed for violent crime and a victim of the crack epidemic. His father worked two jobs and put himself through night school. When Morris got a C in English, his dad pulled him from sports until Morris got his grades up. And he did and managed to earn a football scholarship to Hofstra.
Morris would go on to join Atlanta’s staff in 2015, once again reuniting with Shanahan. But it wasn’t Shanahan that brought Morris on. It was Dan Quinn, who Morris replaced last season. Quinn and Morris go all the way back to Hofstra where Morris was a defensive back and Quinn was the defensive line coach.
In Atlanta, Dan Quinn relied heavily on Morris in their time together in Atlanta. For instance, trusting a defensive guy to coach wide receivers. One of the big reasons that Quinn knew Morris was up to the task was because has a unique ability to distill information and communicate it directly, a skillset that basically sums up coaching.
Mike Tomlin had this to say about Morris, “He was an unbelievably quick learner in just about all circumstances. He had unbelievable retention skills and an ability to relate and instruct. The rate in which he learned was shocking.”
Quinn also trusted Morris to give it to him straight, which can be hard to find when you’ve made it to such a powerful position as NFL head coach. “You need somebody behind you who can give you the real facts,” Quinn said of Morris. “‘I know you may not have seen this, but you need to know this.’ He’s always been able to deliver those messages to me. ‘You better have a conversation with so and so. You should consider this.’”
Morris’ next big promotion was after the 2019 season. He was once again a defensive coordinator. And this time for more than a month. This time he got a whole 10 months in before the Falcons fired Quinn and promoted Morris to head coach.
It’s hard to judge Morris as a DC as he only has five games under his belt. Not to mention that being a DC for Quinn is sort of like being an OC for Sean McVay. So that clouds even those five games. But, a look at the 11 games after Quinn reveals a dramatic uptick in defensive efficiency. In weeks one through five, the Atlanta defense allowed successful plays on 59% of passing plays and 55% of running plays. In weeks six through 17, Atlanta lowered those rates to 46% of running plays and 52% of passing plays. They also improved from 28th in defensive DVOA to 14th. He also did this with a far less talented crew than he will get in LA.
This brings up the most important things to know about Raheem Morris. How is he going to keep this defense the best in football? And does he see room for improvement?
Keep in mind that Morris has been a secondary coach for most of his career and that is where Brandon Staley built his defense. The Rams backfield is solid and Staley did a great job developing some of the raw young talent. There is still room for improvement there.
A good indication of success will be watching Taylor Rapp’s development this offseason. Rapp had a good rookie season but was hobbled with a knee injury throughout 2020. One of Morris’ skillsets is getting the best out of guys. If Rapp’s rookie season is any indication of how high his ceiling is, he should flourish under Morris.
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Another indication of what Morris is thinking for this defense will be the offseason moves the team makes. Firstly, they will have to make some very hard decisions in free agency. Speaking of the strong secondary, John Johnson, Darious Williams, and Troy Hill are all free agents this year. Leonard Floyd and Samson Ebukam are too. Floyd was important to the team’s pass rush, and edge pressure was hard to come by for the Rams, but he is the team’s most expensive free agent.
Staley’s defense hid one of the glaring needs which was at inside linebacker. Watching how Morris addresses this in the offseason will reveal a lot about his plans.
From a scheme perspective, things will look a bit different because only Staley runs the Staley defense. It is possible that the Rams will continue to use things from it and certainly within Morris’ ability to learn from it given his ability to learn and retain quickly. But Morris won’t likely try a large overhaul like turning them into a 4-3 defense. Morris has worked in a variety of systems, so he has the know-how to adapt to the talent he has on the team. With Aaron Donald on the line, three is more like 3.5 or four guys anyhow.
As good as Brandon Staley’s defense was, it had an exploitable flaw. The signature lightboxes dared teams to run and for the most part, they didn’t dare to run on them. But a few teams did. Green Bay specifically. They ran the ball for 188 yards on that defense. The most yards all season. They forced the safeties to play closer to the line, which opened up windows for Aaron Rodgers to win downfield. This is basically how the 49ers beat Green Bay last season.
Of course, the tie that binds this is Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers upset the Rams in both meetings this season. Raheem Morris knows Shanahan, they go way back! He helped him build this offense in Atlanta. The 2019 Falcons held the 49ers to their third-lowest point total that season. With more and more Shanahan-ians calling plays in the league, having a guy that knows how to slow them down will be gold.
Morris also brings with him a load of intangibles and experience. His ability to cut to the chase will benefit the still young and eager McVay. His ability to get the best out of players will raise the bar of this defense regardless of offseason moves. And past players and colleagues love and respect the hell out of him. There are far too many anecdotes confirming this for it not to be true.
Ronde Barber, who was with him through the roughest times says he’s “family”, not just a coach.
Morris will also bring his hunger. The hardest thing about hiring Morris is his time with the Rams could be shorter than we realize. Morris wants another shot to be a head coach.
“When I became a head coach, I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared,” he says. “If you are prepared, you are strong enough to tell your owners, your general manager, why you need Derrick Brooks. Now I’m ready and prepared at the same time.”
If Morris makes this already great defense even a little better he will get that shot. As a Rams fan, you can’t root against that.