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Why is the Atlanta Falcons’ Raheem Morris coaching wide receivers?

After a career playing and coaching defense, Morris has taken his power to the offensive side

Raheem Morris knows a little something about defense. During his playing days, he was a safety, after all. As a young college coach, he worked with defensive backs. He had similar gigs at several stops in the NFL. For most of his career, the Atlanta Falcons’ assistant head coach grinded it out on D. Which is why it was more than just puzzling when Morris completely flipped the script. This season, he switched to offense and began coaching the Falcons’ wide receivers. What could Morris possibly know about that? Apparently, a lot.

Under Morris, the Falcons’ new-look receiving corps has been sensational — a big reason for the team’s appearance in Super Bowl LI. Julio Jones is still the showstopper he’s always been, but now the rest of the group is also delivering for quarterback Matt Ryan, the likely recipient of The Associated Press’ NFL MVP Award. Morris brought a unique perspective to a bewilderingly new job and quickly earned the players’ trust. The reviews have been so good that Morris – who in 2009 became the youngest African-American head coach in NFL history when he was picked to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – could be back on the path to running his own shop.

“Raheem has been one of the main differences this year,” Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “We couldn’t have had this success without him.”

And don’t say that way back before the season began, you could have predicted this.

Last season, first-year head coach Dan Quinn got off to a great start. At 5-0, the Falcons seemed destined to reach the postseason. They finished 8-8. For the third consecutive season, Atlanta missed the playoffs. Changes on the coaching staff were expected. However, Falcons observers never envisioned that Morris would be part of the reshuffling.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, left, talks with Raheem Morris, Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach and and wide receivers coach, before an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Seattle.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett (left) talks with Raheem Morris (right) the Atlanta Falcons’ assistant head coach and wide receivers coach, before an NFL football game on Oct. 16, 2016, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

Quinn and Morris have been tight for 20 years. After Quinn took over the Falcons, Morris was one of his first hires. Quinn, formerly the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive playcaller, relied on Morris, who directed the Falcons’ passing defense. But the loss of receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who bolted to become the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator, created an opening. Quinn shifted Morris to fill the vacuum. Predictably, chatter from around the league ensued. Was Quinn dissatisfied with his longtime friend’s performance? Was Morris demoted? Was he on his way out? Internally, the speculation about Morris stirred laughter. Quinn wasn’t down on Morris. Coach just needed someone he could trust to lead a key unit in transition.

For years, the Falcons were set at wideout. Roddy White and Jones were a dominant tandem. But by early in the 2015 season, it was clear that White’s career was winding down. Jones led the NFL in receiving yards, but in March 2016, the Falcons released White. That left an already dependent Ryan with Jones as his only reliable look. The Falcons needed a major infusion of talent at wide receiver. Fast.

In free agency, Atlanta lured Mohamed Sanu from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Falcons claimed Taylor Gabriel off waivers from the Cleveland Browns. The Falcons envisioned Sanu being a productive No. 2 receiver behind Jones. Quinn and Shanahan were intrigued by Gabriel’s stretch-the-defense speed. Now, Morris had to make them all fit together.

Morris took a different approach to developing wideouts. He pulled from what he knew best: defense. Morris brought a defensive back’s mentality to the wide receivers room. He knows how cornerbacks and safeties think. After all, Morris spent most of his career training them. Although Morris mostly guides receivers in a traditional way — helping them refine their route running, understanding their roles within the offense, minimizing mistakes, etc. — he also shares tips about ways in which defensive backs reveal coverage before the snap. He’s great about assessing a defensive back’s strengths and weaknesses. Receivers use his scouting reports to gain an edge in one-on-one matchups. Tricks-of-the-trade stuff that’s invaluable. From his first meeting with the players, Morris had their attention. He hasn’t lost it.

“He did an awesome job,” wideout Nick Williams said. “He really broke down what the defense is trying to do to you. He wanted us to be open to rethinking some things, and everyone trusted him. As you can see, we had a pretty good unit this year.

“The biggest thing was that he approached everything from a defensive perspective. It’s really rare to have an offensive position coach who comes from defense. It just doesn’t happen. So he sees the offense differently. Then we saw it differently. It helps.”

Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall figured Morris would pull back the curtain to help Atlanta’s receivers. During Morris’ stint as the Washington Redskins’ defensive backs coach, he became close with Hall. Initially, the 13-year veteran was surprised that his dude changed jobs, “but when you think about it, it actually makes sense,” Hall said. “He’s thinking from a DB’s standpoint, playing receiver.

“He’s thinking outside the box from a coverage standpoint, what the defense is trying to do on every play and how to get his guys open. It definitely made him a way better coach. He’s bringing all these ideas that most guys in that job don’t know about. He’s also making his guys better. They’re getting a way of looking at something that just isn’t the normal way it’s done.”

Morris’ methods work. Jones, despite battling a foot injury, has been typically spectacular. During a blowout victory over the Carolina Panthers in early October, he set a team record with 300 yards receiving. Of course, the Falcons knew what to expect from Jones. But Sanu and Gabriel have been outstanding, too, and that’s changed the game.

The sure-handed Sanu is impressively steady. Since Week 8, he’s caught 86.5 percent of his targets (45 of 52) — the highest total among NFL wideouts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Behind Jones, Gabriel emerged as Ryan’s No. 2 deep threat. On his six receiving touchdowns, Gabriel has averaged a whopping 42.7 yards. That’s the second-highest total among wideouts with at least five touchdown catches.

Atlanta averaged an NFL-leading 33.8 points, finished 11-5 and won the NFC South. The Falcons’ offense has been even better in the postseason. Jones and Sanu each linked up with Ryan for touchdowns in a blowout of the Seattle Seahawks. Then in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers, Jones delivered a 180-yard, two-touchdown knockout punch. He manhandled the Packers’ secondary en route to a 73-yard score.

The Falcons are averaging 40 points in the postseason. Their margin of victory is 19.5 points. Ryan remains aflame. It’s nice to have a gaggle of dependable receivers.

And it’s Morris who has made them better, Sanu said. “He came to us and helped us grow,” Sanu said. “Mentally, physically and emotionally, he found out what each of us needed and helped us. After getting to know him, I wasn’t surprised by what he did. I learned that’s just the type of person he is.”

Along the path to building a bond with the receivers, Morris also got a newfound respect for defense. The countless hours spent coaching and counseling top-notch wideouts made him appreciate how hard it is to play defensive back in the NFL. “We were sitting in his house last weekend talking about the difference with him now coaching offense, and it was just so interesting to hear him talk,” Hall said. “He was like, ‘Man, I don’t know how y’all ever play DB in this league. With all the rules, it’s basically impossible to [cover] guys like that.’ He was seeing it for the millionth time, just in a totally different way. Then, he did a great job of taking what he knows and kind of flipping it around to his advantage.”

Morris also effectively articulated Shanahan’s vision of the offense. He’s largely responsible for improving communication issues that plagued the offense throughout last season’s collapse. Once low-level coaches together on Jon Gruden’s staff in Tampa Bay, Morris and Shanahan are longtime friends. Shanahan jumped at the chance to add Morris to Atlanta’s offensive staff, “because to get a coach who can relate to players better than anyone who I’ve been around, yet still always hold them accountable, is exactly the type of coach you want to work with,” he said. “It’s what makes him special.”

Better than most coaches, Morris connects with players. His ability to reach them fueled his meteoric ascent to a head coaching job at only 32. In NFL history, there have only been four head coaches who were younger than Morris. Initially promoted to be the Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator, Morris received another bump to the franchise’s top position after Gruden was fired in January 2009. Morris had some success – Tampa Bay went 10-6 in his second season – but he didn’t reach the playoffs and was fired after three seasons. Among the criticisms of Morris, besides his poor 17-31 record, was that he got too close to players. Supposedly Morris didn’t run a tight ship. Hall heard the talk. Having played for Morris, he doesn’t buy it.

“When you lose, a lot of people talk stuff,” Hall said. “A lot of stuff goes on. But talk to guys who have played for Raheem. They go out there and play hard for him. There’s respect there.

“He knows how to deal with guys to get the best out of them. But he also knows the game. He’s not just somebody who motivates guys. Raheem is prepared. He’s always trying to get better. I’ve seen it. That’s the guy who I know.”

With his job duties this season, Morris has shown growth. To the Falcons, that’s obvious.

In Shanahan’s offense, a lot is expected of wideouts. Their responsibilities change quickly based on Ryan’s pre-snap calls in response to the defense’s alignment, and Morris has “had them on top of it all year,” backup quarterback Matt Schaub said. “With all they have to know on every play, and we ask a lot of them on checks and alerts, you can tell if guys are not ready. You’ll see it. He’s had them ready. And they’ve done a great job to help us get to this point.”

At only 40, Morris is still young enough to have a second act as a head coach. African-Americans who are perceived to have failed in their first chance to lead a program, however, are far less likely than their white counterparts to get additional opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl – combined with Morris’ well-received performance – will open doors for him in the next few seasons, either for openings as a coordinator or a head coach. Now that Morris has been an integral part of an elite offense, maybe a position as an offensive playcaller is his next step. We know NFL owners love offense. For a good stretch now, they’ve often looked first to that side of the ball when positions come open. It seems Morris is now in the right spot.

No matter the outcome of the Super Bowl, Atlanta’s coaching staff figures to undergo a makeover. Reportedly, Shanahan has been in negotiations for some time to become the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach. Undoubtedly Shanahan will take some Falcons coaches with him. Perhaps Morris will make another move. If Shanahan hopes to assemble a highly versatile staff, he knows where he can find someone who’s already proven he can get it done on both sides of the ball.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.