Vikings

Raheem Morris Isn't Just Another Defensive Coach

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings set up an interview with Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris on Tuesday. Your first reaction to that might be a gag reflex since Morris is another defensive coordinator. The Vikings just fired a defensive coach, why would they hire another one? That dichotomy is false. You may be tempted to conflate every single defensive staff member in the NFL with Mike Zimmer. But defensive coaches can be plenty aggressive (Brandon Staley) or preside over pass-heavy approaches (Sean McDermott).

Zimmer’s failures weren’t the failures of a defensive coach. They were failures of Mike Zimmer. Morris is a different person than Zimmer, believe it or not, with different experiences and philosophies. So are Todd Bowles, Dan Quinn, and everyone else who happens to coach defense in the NFL. Morris isn’t Zimmer 2.0 or Leslie Frazier 3.0. He’s also not the same coach who went 21-38 as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009-11. He’s so, so, so much more.


Early Career

Morris grew up in Irvington, New Jersey. His father had to work too many hours to support the family, so he spent much of his childhood learning life from his grandmother. Coming from those humble beginnings, Morris appreciates the opportunities he has had. He also has an easier time relating to players with similar backgrounds. Perhaps Morris would have an easier time relating to San Bernardino native Alexander Mattison than 65-year-old ranch owner Zimmer.

In college he played under Joe Gardi, whom older New York Jets fans know as the famous coach of the New York Sack Exchange (the reason sacks became an official stat in the early ’80s). After his playing career ended, he worked as a college defensive backs coach for a couple of years before joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His first year as a defensive assistant was 2002 when Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl.

Morris worked his way up the ladder in Tampa Bay until the shine on Gruden’s Lombardi Trophy wore off. During that time, he worked with Mike Tomlin, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, and Kyle Shanahan, among other names. That Tampa Bay staff was highly collaborative. Tomlin details his experience in this podcast with Morris and McVay. The secondary coaches would often watch film with the wide receivers and Richard Mann, the receivers coach at the time.

21-38 in Tampa

Morris took that collaborative style into his first stint as a head coach. That opportunity sort of blindsided Morris, who had just been promoted to defensive coordinator. But when the Bucs fired Gruden, they gave Morris the keys to the kingdom. He was 32 years old when he took that job, and he wasn’t prepared for it by his own admission. It didn’t go well.

Those Buccaneers were impossibly young with a young head coach. Morris was the same age as his players and had the same upbringing as many of them. He took collaboration to an extreme. Morris got caught socializing with his players and coached with an overly familiar tone. He failed to manage the headstrong personalities in Tampa Bay and lost his authority.

After a 3-13 opening campaign, Morris latched onto the idea of winning 10 games. He figured a 10-win season was enough to make the playoffs. In 2010, the Buccaneers won 10 games and missed the playoffs. In 2011, Morris had to handle questions about his eternally young roster. He called them “youngry” en route to a 4-12 disaster season. He was fired and replaced with Greg Schiano.

This experience is probably the driving factor in most fans’ opinions of Morris. When you fail once, you’re defined by that failure forever. Black coaches especially suffer from this, which leads to fewer second chances than their white peers. It was a bad stint, and we have to figure out if it’s going to happen again. Has Morris learned from this experience, or should we fear him once again getting too chummy with the players?

Post-Tampa

Freshly radioactive off of his ousting from Tampa Bay, Morris needed a place to lick his wounds. Mike Shanahan coached in Washington at the time with McVay, LaFleur, and Shanahan the younger. Under Mike Shanahan, Morris learned a lot about being a head coach and not just a coordinator with a promotion. Mike Shanahan wanted to give Morris a learning experience like the one he had after his first firing from Oakland and took Morris under his wing.

He learned the importance of diversity in opinion and how to surround himself with brilliant minds. Morris learned about hiring in general. He learned about talent evaluation and roster building. The job of head coach comes with a lot of responsibilities that coordinators don’t have to worry about. The best tactician in the world might not be able to sit in a draft room and make a call on the injury-laden superstar edge rusher or the athletic linebacker with character flags.

Morris started to learn more about the offensive side of the ball in Washington. He was in the meeting rooms where they brainstormed ways to unlock Robert Griffin III. He would spend long hours debating football with his buddies on the offensive staff. With wounds still fresh over Zimmer’s clashes with offensive staff, that sort of collaboration would be a welcome change.

Becoming An Offensive coach

Simply chatting with some offensive coordinators does not an offensive coach make. But when Dan Quinn hired Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, they brought Morris along to coach the defensive backs and coordinate the coverages. A couple of years in, receivers coach Terry Robiskie was hired to coordinate the Tennessee Titans’ offense, leaving a vacancy. Morris ended up with that job, flipping from defense to offense.

Morris continually picked Robiskie’s brain but also applied his defensive knowledge. He taught receivers how to attack classic cornerback and safety techniques. Morris understood which coverages were weak to what and when a coach would call them. After all, he was the passing defense coordinator the previous year. He gave invaluable scouting reports to his offense.

This approach is proven and offers a refreshing contrast to Zimmer’s style of challenging the offense. Zimmer revealed the entire offensive practice plan to the defense on one occasion. The defense called its plays knowing the offense’ plan, leading to a terrible day on offense. Zimmer lit them up for their failure. As a head coach, Morris would equip his offense to succeed rather than challenge them not to fail.

Morris would eventually become the passing-game coordinator, rounding out his experience. In a pass-first league, Morris’ value comes from someone intimately familiar with passing offense and passing defense at the NFL level. There aren’t many with that much experience who aren’t already head coaches themselves.

As A Head coach

By 2020, Quinn’s time had run out as the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach, and the team ran the coach out of town. Morris took over as head coach. His first game? A 40-point drubbing of Zimmer’s Vikings. He won four of his first six games before dropping five straight (against four 2020 playoff teams, mind you). Morris only got the job because of his past experience as a head coach. A 4-7 stint doesn’t exactly light the world on fire, but you could see him rally those Falcons.

Morris interviewed for the full-time job in Atlanta, but the Falcons ultimately with Arthur Smith. That brought Morris back to his old friend McVay. He again coordinated the defensive backs before Brandon Staley left to coach the Los Angeles Chargers. In 2021, Morris coordinated a top-10 defense and is still coaching in the divisional round.

Morris is not just another defensive coach. The vast majority of defensive coaches don’t spend several years coordinating the offensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinators don’t spend their entire careers exposing themselves to offensive experience. If Zimmer’s fatal flaw was an over-emphasis of defense and ignorance of offense, you might be tempted to go find someone who over-emphasizes offense. But neglecting defense is just a different way to fall below .500 (just look at Sean Payton‘s mid-decade skid pre-Dennis Allen).

As a head coach, you must manage all three phases of the game. Zimmer refused to do this, and if he were an offensive coach who refused to manage the defense, the Vikings would just be a different flavor of failure. Morris would not fall victim to this trap. At 44, he’s still a young mind as coaches go, but perhaps not so young that he feels called to party with his players.

As a head coach, Morris seems to have learned lessons from his first failure. Who knows if other problems won’t crop up over a head coaching stint. But instead of falling apart over the dichotomy between offense and defense, focus on the person. Sports are about people coming together, not debates over offense and defense. They’re about engaging in competition and bringing out the best in each other. Raheem Morris has a history of that over the 11 years since he flamed out in Tampa. It’s time he gets another chance.

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