Raheem Morris is turning around the Falcons, but will NFL team owners even notice?

After an 0-5 start in which the Atlanta Falcons continued their confounding, Washington Generals-like inability to close out games, team owner Arthur Blank fired head coach Dan Quinn and named defensive coordinator Raheem Morris interim head coach.

This was notable, and not just because Blank pulled the plug on a coach who was 21 minutes away from the Falcons’ Super Bowl win.

No, this was also about Morris getting the one thing that has proven to be all too rare for Black men who fall short in their first stint as NFL head coaches: A second chance.

Second-chance coaches aren’t a rarity in football. Bill Belichick was fired in Cleveland before he won six rings. Andy Reid was fired in Philly before he became a Super Bowl winner. And a whole bunch of guys you’ve never heard of have gotten second chances and had varying levels of success.

But Black coaches? All too often, they don’t get those opportunities.

Hell, they barely even get first chances, hence the reason the league recently felt compelled to pass Rooney Rule incentives. For as well-intentioned as it might be, it likely won’t fix the real problem: the hearts and minds of the team owners.

Just look at their history. All too often, team owners have already proven they completely overlook Black head coaches who fail in their first stop and go back to being successful coordinators or position coaches. That makes what’s happening now in Atlanta so interesting.

Raheem Morris, wearing a mask, looks on before a game.
Atlanta Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris was given a rare second chance as a Black coach in the NFL, and the Falcons are 3-1 in his tenure. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Todd Gurley lauds Raheem Morris’ competency, honesty

Don’t look now, but since the 44-year-old Morris — who was hired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach in 2009 at merely 32 years old and went 17-31 in his three-year stint — took over, the Falcons are 3-1, and are one mistaken Todd Gurley touchdown from being a perfect 4-0.

“The Dirty Birds are back,” Morris declared after their 34-27 win over Denver on Sunday.

Are the players buying it? You bet.

“Hey, if my dawg said it, then I’m with him,” said Gurley, who spoke to Yahoo Sports this week on behalf of Pillsbury.

Gurley didn’t have to co-sign on Morris that hard. One could surmise that if he had any reservations about his interim coach, his answer would have been more generic. He has been a pro long enough — six years now — to get that.

When asked what he would tell people about Morris as a head coach, Gurley expressed a belief in the man’s competency.

“First of all, he’s Black and he’s a head coach, so that just tells you right there — there’s not many of those,” Gurley said. “Honestly, I haven’t had a Black head coach since little league, so I’m excited just to be able to play with a guy with that opportunity. And under the circumstances he’s been under, you can’t do anything but respect that and appreciate that.”

Raheem Morris fist bumps Todd Gurley before a game.
Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley said he respects interim head coach Raheem Morris who has shown accountability and is approachable with his players. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

And the thing players, who understand the rare opportunity that their interim coach has in front of him, appreciate the most about Morris is that he’s approachable and honest.

“Man, he just keeps it real,” Gurley said. “Not that most coaches don’t, but he kind of just speaks what’s on his mind and just says it. There’s no b.s.”

Plus, they can talk to him.

“If we’ve got something to say, if he needs to take care of us on the field, he will,” Gurley said. “Off days, he will. He’s getting it done. I’ll give him that.”

Morris’ accountability gives Falcons credibility

Morris has also proven to be accountable. In the Falcons’ only loss since he took over, a 23-22 defeat to Detroit a few weeks ago, Gurley accidentally scored a touchdown that gave Detroit the ball back late and allowed the Lions to score the winner.

Gurley took responsibility for the mistake but it was not lost on him that afterward, Morris took responsibility for it, attempting to protect his player in a way that good coaches do in an effort to lead from the front and prevent internal finger-pointing.

“I’ve always blamed everything on the coaches, by the way,” Gurley said with a laugh, joking before turning serious. “But for somebody just to be able to take credit and man up, you can’t do anything but respect that.

“Obviously, I’m out there playing, and I know what I need to do. But just for someone to have your back, whatever profession that is, everyone feels appreciated.”

The work is hardly done for Morris and the Falcons, who are in the bye week before they face the New Orleans Saints. A win here, against the NFC South leaders, would help Morris build the momentum he needs to get another full-time NFL head coaching job, be it in Atlanta or elsewhere this offseason.

Here’s what we do know: At the moment, what Morris has done in Atlanta thus far should be respected, and appreciated.

Hopefully, if it keeps up, some team owner will buck the league’s own dismal record on such matters and take notice.

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