ATLANTA — Raheem Morris fell into the arms of his wife, Nicole, as the Georgia Dome was rocking after the Falcons' 44-21 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22. For about 15 minutes, there was nothing but hugs, high fives and handshakes for Atlanta's assistant head coach.
"This is the fun part of the NFL you rarely get to see," Morris said.
Perhaps just as rare is what Morris accomplished this season. A cornerback at Hofstra, Morris has always coached on the defensive side of the football. But when Falcons receivers coach Terry Robiskie was hired to become Titans offensive coordinator last January, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn telephoned Morris, who had just finished his first season with Atlanta as assistant head coach/defensive backs coach, to ask for recommendations for the receivers coach vacancy.
"I was walking around the mall in Buckhead (in Atlanta) when he called me back and asked me to think about this," Morris said. "We had been talking about this guy and that guy and he said, 'How about you doing it?' I told him I had never thought about that but I would do whatever the team needs."
Morris had worked with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when they were on the Redskins' staff. He was familiar with Shanahan's offense, but had to dive into the playbook and worked overtime to prepare for everything from the install periods in organized team activities to training camp and then adapting to game plans for the season.
The result was that the Falcons had the league's No. 1 offense and averaged nearly 34 points per game. Receivers Julio Jones (1,409 yards, six touchdowns), Mohamed Sanu (653 yards, four touchdowns) and Taylor Gabriel (579 yards, six touchdowns) combined for a monster season.
Of course, Morris has never been one to back down from a challenge. At 32, he became the youngest NFL head coach when the Bucs chose him to replace Jon Gruden after the 2008 season. Just a month earlier, Gruden had named Morris the team's defensive coordinator in '09 to replace Monte Kiffin, who had decided to follow his son Lane to the University of Tennessee.
Before Morris had a chance to call a play, he suddenly found himself leading a complete overhaul of the roster and some decisions by ownership and the front office that likely doomed him to failure.
Ten days before the season opener, general manager Mark Dominik fired newly hired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. The former Boston College head coach was deemed ill-prepared to be the primary play-caller and his playbook lacked the necessary volume for the NFL. So quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was left to pick up the pieces using the terminology and scheme that Jagodzinski had spent six months installing.
The Bucs drafted quarterback Josh Freeman in the first round. But Dominik and Morris didn't want to rush him into the lineup, settling on a bizarre competition between perennial NFL backups Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown. Freeman didn't start until Week 9, debuting with a 38-28 upset over the Packers.
Ten games into Morris' first season, the Bucs also fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates, forcing the first-year coach to take over defensive play-calling duties for the next two seasons.
"We came in there, tore it down, we tried to build through the draft and some guys worked out and some didn't," Morris said. "I'm so much more prepared now to be a head coach, it's not even close. There's no manual for being a head football coach in the NFL."
Despite a 3-13 start, the Bucs would win 16 of their next 24 games under Morris, a streak that has not since been duplicated. Tampa Bay went 10-6 in 2010, narrowing missing the playoffs.
Morris and coaches lobbied Dominik and ownership to make a push in free agency, but the only player signed was punter Michael Koenen. Despite this, the Bucs started 4-2 with wins over the Falcons and Saints. Then came an ill-fated trip to London, where they lost to the Bears 24-18. Both running backs LeGarrette Blount and Earnest Graham were injured, the latter to a season-ending torn Achilles.
The wheels fell off and the Bucs would go on to lose 10 straight games to finish 4-12. Morris and his staff was fired but Dominik remained as GM to hire Greg Schiano.
The perception was that Morris' teams lacked discipline, which fans believed was a reflection of him. Time has proven that while talented, players such as Freeman, Aqib Talib, Blount, Mike Williams and Tanard Jackson were character risks to begin with and had their share of personal demons.
Now 40, married with two daughters and having worked under Mike Shanahan (Kyle's dad), Jay Gruden (Jon's brother) and Quinn, Morris is better equipped to become an NFL head coach again and many in the league believe he will get that chance. Being able to make a seamless switch from defense to receivers coach is only a bonus.
"I was 32 and had only been around one head coach in the NFL and that's Coach Gruden, who I'm grateful for giving me the opportunity," Morris said. "With Jay, Coach Quinn and now probably Shanahan (who is expected to be hired as 49ers coach), they're all first-time coaches and when they go through stuff, some of those memories and experiences I had in Tampa allow me to help them.
"You always want to learn from your failures and I've been able to share those things with all those coaches, and I've been able to have a close relationship with each of them.
"I was fortunate to be in Tampa so long. At the same time, it was a curse in the sense that I missed out on some other things. I'd been around only one head coach once I became one. Hopefully, I get that chance again."