As Falcons pass on Bill Belichick, it’s clear what is shutting him out of this NFL head-coaching hiring cycle

The Dallas Cowboys' job never opened. The Los Angeles Chargers' vacancy was never on the table. And the Atlanta Falcons chose to go another way. Now, with only two head-coaching jobs remaining across the league — the Washington Commanders and Seattle Seahawks — it’s looking more feasible than ever that the 2024 NFL hiring cycle could leave Bill Belichick behind.

The reasons? Time and power. Belichick has a short supply of one and continues to seek an abundance of the other.

That’s the takeaway from Belichick’s pair of meetings with the Falcons, which ultimately led team owner Arthur Blank to reconsider his quest to secure the heavy-hitting culture architect who also boasts a titanic résumé. Despite two meetings with Belichick — including a dinner late last week — the Falcons continued to scour and refine their list of candidates this week, igniting a belief in league and agent circles that the organization was seriously considering options beyond Belichick.

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On Thursday, that suspicion was confirmed when Blank hired Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who previously held multiple positions on Atlanta’s staff from 2015 to 2020, including a stint as defensive coordinator and interim head coach following the firing of Dan Quinn in 2020.

The crossroads, according to a source familiar with the Falcons and Blank, was the element of realignment that would've needed to take place inside the Falcons to maximize a Belichick hire. While Blank and Belichick apparently never discussed a detailed plan of how a linear chain of command under the head coach would work, the source said meetings with Blank crystalized Belichick’s continued belief that the full scope of football operations, personnel and coaching should be under his decision-making umbrella.

But the Falcons, like virtually every other team in the NFL, have never entertained that type of CEO/coach power structure. Embracing it under Belichick would have raised the specter of either shuffling or redefining multiple jobs within the organization — if not rebooting some parts altogether.

Foxborough, MA - January 11: New England Patriots former head coach Bill Belichick addressed the media at Gillette Stadium about his departure. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Bill Belichick will likely be left out of the 2024 NFL head-coach hiring cycle. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

That process likely would have been messy, particularly given Blank’s longtime loyalty to team CEO Rich McKay, whom Blank hired in late 2003 to be the Falcons’ general manager. McKay eventually ascended to the role of team president and CEO in 2008, and he continues to be Blank’s most influential executive — both inside the organization and across the league. So much so that it’s not uncommon for former Falcons coaches and executives to relate McKay’s role as being a direct day-to-day extension of Blank’s authority in virtually every facet of the franchise.

This is where the path away from Belichick toward the hiring of Morris comes into more detailed focus. Despite being passed over for Arthur Smith when the Falcons last hired a head coach, Morris continued to be held in high esteem in both the ownership and executive suites in Atlanta. He was also someone who had the support of the locker room as a motivator and connector, a trait he showcased this season with a remarkably young Rams defense that rounded into form quickly under his guidance. Despite going 4-7 in his stint as an interim in 2020 (after the Falcons started 0-5 under Quinn), Morris was praised within the franchise for going 4-2 in his first six games and keeping the team engaged and competitive despite injuries to an already undermanned roster.

That impression undoubtedly lingered around the Falcons, particularly with McKay, who has a relationship with Morris dating to 2002, when McKay was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Morris landed his first NFL coaching job with that franchise. The subtext: McKay has known Morris for a long time and is well-versed in what he brings to the table. The two can work together. And that’s more than Blank could've known about Belichick and McKay, given that McKay’s authority within the franchise likely would've been blunted under the type of power structure Belichick prefers.

A Belichick hire anywhere — as his preferred coach-centered power structure currently stands — would almost certainly involve a team owner pulling significant decision-making power away from the general manager, the team president and likely a multitude of other individuals. That's a litany of executives who, like McKay with Blank, likely already have a track record with their club owner and would view their diminished roles as a demotion at best. In some cases, it could even necessitate a spate of firings as Belichick lines a surrounding staff with his own trusted hires.

Any franchise owner in the NFL is equipped to make that kind of change if they feel it’s necessary. But it’s very rare in today’s NFL and entirely unprecedented on the level that Belichick achieved in New England. For a team owner to consider attempting to replicate that with Belichick then raises the question of shelf life. A studs-up rebuild of a coaching staff, executive ranks and a personnel department takes time. The Patriots' structure was built over decades, with franchise owner Robert Kraft gradually ceding more power to Belichick as time went on. Today, a team owner has to consider handing over the entirety of everything all at once to a head coach who is on the doorstep of turning 72 years old.

That’s the second complication with a Belichick dance. Kraft hired Belichick when the coach was 48 and watched him shape his surroundings over a long period of time. There was a significant window of commitment available for both coach and club owner. Now? Not only is the window infinitely smaller — maybe only a few years — but also the rate of installation would likely have to be steeper than anything the NFL has ever seen.

All of which brings us back to the Falcons and how their decision projects for every other franchise that considers Belichick. Was Blank going to pull the rug out from under a longtime and influential executive in McKay and also general manager Terry Fontenot — who has done an admirable job rebuilding the team in his three years at the personnel helm — just to embrace a short retooling under Belichick? And what if it failed? Furthermore, what if Belichick didn’t have the patience with Blank that other head coaches did in the past? Those would've been a lot of unknowns to embrace, whereas the hire of Morris guides the team into a familiar space of continuity and collaboration with the CEO and general manager.

When you wonder why Belichick has engaged in interviews with only one team, the answer might be as simple as it seems. At the outset, it appears that Blank was the franchise owner willing to ask the questions about how Belichick would transplant his culture and success, then consider the potential costs to achieve it. Ultimately, it was too much for Atlanta — and maybe too much for every franchise in this hiring cycle.

If Belichick gets shut out of a head-coaching job this winter, that’s why. And unless something changes moving forward — either in Belichick’s approach to his next job or in a team owner’s willingness to expend the immense financial and relationship capital to implement it — next season and beyond could be no different.