‘He’s going to be a head coach again’: Raheem Morris has a key supporter in Sean McVay
Morris guided the Rams’ defense to the Super Bowl title. He also provided friendship and counsel to one of the NFL’s top head coach makers.
IRVINE, Calif. – With his final interview finished, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay seemed eager to leave the field one afternoon during training camp in late July.
Who could blame him?
After practice, McVay had stood at a lectern and dutifully answered every question directed at him by a throng of reporters. Then, over another long stretch, he repeated the exercise in many one-on-ones. Understandably, McVay was ready to get back to coaching. But before departing, McVay, unsolicited, paused to offer his most salient opinion about Rams defensive playcaller Raheem Morris, whom he had been praising to a journalist. And in whatever would be written about Morris, McVay wanted the following included.
“He’s going to be a head coach again—no question about it,” McVay told Andscape. “He’s such a special leader, such a special coach. And when you think about the things that a great head coach does—has command over the game, command over a room, the ability to connect with a bunch of different people—Raheem does all of that. He just has great ability to lead, teach, motivate, inspire. He checks every single one of those boxes.”
McVay’s unequivocal assessment of Morris’ chances to lead another team (Morris was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three seasons) sounded more like a declaration than a prediction. And when the most successful young head coach in NFL history talks, team owners take notice. McVay’s strong endorsement figures to aid Morris, 46, immeasurably in his desire to occupy a head coach’s office again one day. By any objective criteria, Morris has certainly earned another shot.
But here’s the thing: The NFL has 32 teams and only three Black head coaches; the NFL is being sued by three Black coaches who allege that professional sports’ most powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in its hiring practices based on race; and, well, Morris is Black. The commissioner’s office has moved aggressively in an attempt to change the league’s awful hiring narrative, implementing programs in the offseason intended to—eventually—increase the pool of qualified minority candidates and women for top openings in football operations.
Whether Morris is offered another head coaching position soon could be viewed as a litmus test of the degree of progress in this area at the club level.
Clearly, McVay’s verdict on Morris is already in. To hear McVay tell it, the Rams kick off the NFL regular season as the defending Super Bowl champions largely because Morris made a major contribution in his first season with the franchise.
Highly skilled in matters of X’s and O’s as well as an inspirational leader, Morris, perhaps most importantly, also acts as a sounding board for McVay. During the Rams’ rough three-game slide in November (the team’s average margin of defeat was 13.7 points), McVay relied on Morris, whom he served with on two NFL coaching staffs when both were assistants, for sound counsel on and off the field.
Morris never disappointed him, McVay said.
“He was huge, and I leaned on him as much as anybody,” McVay recalled. “Our friendship goes back a long time … but it’s a lot more than that. Just to have another leader in place, who has experienced some of the things that I’m going through in my chair … it was so important for me.
“But then also to be able to turn to him and talk about, ‘Hey, how do we navigate this? What’s the best way to get the responses, in an authentic way, that we want from our players?’ Just his ability to stay the course, stay even-keeled, is also so important. He’s so secure in himself. He loves it [the pursuit of victory] and he’s as committed as anybody, but he doesn’t let this affect his ability to still enjoy the process and have a zest for life. Sometimes that’s good for me to see and be reminded of.”
Back during those dark days of November, Morris understood the role he needed to fill for McVay. Morris approached the task in a clear-eyed manner.
“First of all, nobody’s gonna start pointing fingers. We’re gonna figure out how to fix it. That’s what I thought and that’s where I started,” Morris said. “You had a whole bunch of people just trying to figure out what to do, how to do it and what they could do more of. I just like to put myself in position to always be one of those guys. Also, I always try to put myself in a position to be as helpful to people whose jobs I’ve done before in this league.
“Whether it be a coordinator, whether it be a head coach, a position coach or a quality control coach, I always want to do everything I can to make their jobs better. I want that because I know what it feels like in all of those positions and all of those levels. When you’re lucky enough and fortunate enough to have been in those spots, you gotta be the guy who shines bright to help everyone. You should want to be that guy. And that’s what I pride myself in doing.”
Morris was a rock of stability as the Rams got it turned around after their losing streak, the team going 9-1 (a 27-24 loss in overtime to the San Francisco 49ers was the only blemish) in its final 10 games including the playoffs. In the Rams’ 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, Morris’ game plan helped Los Angeles sack Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times. The defense also made two critical fourth-down stands near midfield. One occurred early in the game and led to the Rams’ first touchdown. The other happened late in the fourth quarter, sealing the franchise’s first NFL title since the 1999 season.
The Super Bowl title was Morris’ second as an assistant, Morris having served as a young quality control coach for the Buccaneers when they won Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season. At that point, only four years after graduating from Hofstra, Morris was widely viewed as one of the league’s top coaching prospects regardless of race.
In 2009, when the Buccaneers tapped him to lead them at only 32, Morris was the NFL’s youngest head coach. Morris’ time, however, at the Buccaneers’ helm was short-lived: He went 21-38 in three seasons.
Dismissed from his dream job, Morris has resumed a steady climb back up the coaching ladder.
After being fired by Tampa Bay, Morris joined the staff of the Washington Redskins under head coach Mike Shanahan. Morris was the team’s secondary coach in 2012 when it won the NFC East—its first division title since the 1999 season. Other notable assistants on that staff included McVay; Shanahan’s son Kyle, who has been the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers since 2017; Matt LaFleur, who was hired in 2019 to lead the Green Bay Packers; and Mike McDaniel, who became head coach of the Miami Dolphins in February.
While in Washington, Morris grew close to Mike Shanahan, who, like Morris, had ascended to the top rung of coaching as a young man and fell hard quickly. In 1988, the then-Los Angeles Raiders hired Shanahan, who was only 35, to be their on-field leader. Four games into Shanahan’s second season, the Raiders fired him. He left the franchise with a record of 8-12.
Not surprisingly, Mike Shanahan and Morris had some soul-searching to do after their career setbacks. While together with Washington, Mike Shanahan shared his experience with Morris and encouraged him. Morris regained his footing and then went on to have another good run for six seasons as an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons.
After Morris served as Atlanta’s assistant head coach and defensive passing game coordinator for one season, he moved to coach wide receivers. In 2016, the Falcons led the league in scoring with an average of 33.8 points and won the NFC Championship (Atlanta suffered a historic collapse in losing Super Bowl LI to the New England Patriots 34-28 after leading 28-3).
For the 2020-21 season, the Falcons promoted Morris to defensive coordinator. An 0-5 start resulted in club owner Arthur Blank firing head coach Dan Quinn and elevating Morris to the interim role. Morris interviewed to replace Quinn, but Blank hired Arthur Smith.
McVay had a big hole to fill on his Rams staff for the 2020-21 season after defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers as their head coach. In Morris’ first season with the Rams, the defense gave up an average of 103.2 rushing yards to rank sixth in the NFL. There was also the support Morris provided to McVay during November and the defense’s part in the Rams’ Super Bowl victory. So all in all, Morris couldn’t have had a better debut.
During the Rams’ long playoff run last season, Morris went deep into the process to fill the Minnesota Vikings’ coaching vacancy. He interviewed twice for the position, but the Vikings ultimately chose another Rams coach: offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell.
Morris is no longer a rising fresh face in the NFL’s coaching ranks. He’s one of the best in the business in every facet of the job, yet he’s still trying to get a second chance at the top rung of the ladder.
Although Morris says he doesn’t grow frustrated when other former head coaches receive second chances while he continues to wait for one, “because I enjoy what I do so much right now,” he also makes it clear “there’s no doubt” he wants to be a head coach again.
“Do I love being in the leadership position? No question,” Morris said. “Do I envy what Sean has here, from a perspective of who he works with in upper management and in ownership? No doubt. Do I envy who he works with, as far as some of the coaching staff that we have and as far as some of the players that we have? Sure.
“But I look at it all and try to use those examples to get better and to be more ready for the next opportunity. There’s no doubt about that, either.”
“We have seen that Sean McVay’s coordinators go on to be head coaches. Raheem Morris should be no exception.” — Troy Vincent
At a granular level, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, is involved with every facet of the league’s efforts to bolster inclusive hiring from the front office to the field. In the next hiring cycle, Morris’ name should be on the short lists of all franchise owners who are seeking new head coaches.
“Coach Morris is among the elite,” Vincent wrote to Andscape in a text message. “He has a coaching perspective from the offensive and defensive side of the ball. He served as an interim head coach, he’s a two-time Super Bowl champion, which informs his body of work, and he has tremendous football knowledge. He is a game manager who extracts the very best from the available talent, whether they are superstars or underrated at their positions. We have seen that Sean McVay’s coordinators go on to be head coaches. Raheem Morris should be no exception.”
In the NFL today, there’s no greater kingmaker than McVay.
Beginning only his sixth season as a head coach, McVay has led the Rams to four postseason appearances, three NFC West titles, two NFC championships and one Super Bowl victory. Currently, he’s second to none at helping assistant coaches rise to the ranks of head coaches. Four of his former underlings have moved on to run their own shops: LaFleur (Packers), O’Connell (Vikings), Staley (Chargers) and Zac Taylor (Bengals).
Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advises the NFL on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, believes strongly that Morris should be McVay’s next assistant to move up.
“Morris is one of the finest coaches in the NFL,” Graves wrote to Andscape in a text message. “Few coaches are more skillful and charismatic. He’s been a major factor in the success of any team he’s been a part of.”
Although McVay is counting on Morris this season to help keep the Rams rolling, he’s also determined to help his friend make it all the way back. If any team owners still have questions about Morris, they should just get with McVay.
Gladly, he’ll stop and talk.
“There’s not one best thing about him,” McVay said. “He’s just one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around.”