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Raheem Morris hired as head coach by Atlanta Falcons, who pass on Bill Belichick

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons have hired Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as their head coach after an exhaustive search that included six-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press on Thursday.

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The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team had not made an announcement.

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The 47-year-old Morris is a familiar name in Atlanta, having served as the Falcons’ interim head coach for the final 11 games of the 2020 season after the firing of Dan Quinn. He previously coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three seasons.

Morris was hired by the Falcons after 14 candidates were interviewed, with Belichick the most notable among them.

Earlier Thursday, the team conducted a second interview with Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. In the end, the Falcons decided to go with an experienced coach who has been in the league all but one season going back to 2002, including a stint in Atlanta from 2015-2020.

Morris becomes the first non-interim Black coach in Falcons history and joins general manager Terry Fontenot, who also is Black, in leading a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017.

The hiring ensures there will be at least nine minority head coaches to start the 2024 season, the most ever.

After being passed over for the Falcons job after the 2020 season in favor of Arthur Smith, Morris moved to the Rams. He spent three seasons as that team’s defensive coordinator, a tenure that included a Super Bowl championship his first year.

Smith was fired by the Falcons shortly after their final regular-season game. He went 7-10 in each of his three seasons.

Morris was just 33 years old when he got his first head coaching job with the Buccaneers in 2009. He lasted three seasons, finishing with one winning season, no playoff appearances and a record of 17-31.

During his previous time in Atlanta, Morris worked on both sides of the line as a pass game coordinator, receivers coach and secondary coach under Quinn. He was promoted to defensive coordinator ahead of the 2020 season, moving up to interim head coach after an 0-5 start led to Quinn’s firing.

Morris guided the Falcons to a 4-7 mark the rest of the season, leaving his career record as a head coach at 21-38. He was the first of seven candidates to interview for the full-time job that eventually went to Smith, who was offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.

This time, the Falcons picked Morris.

He is just the second coach in Atlanta history to get two stints as the team’s head coach. Marion Campbell held the job from 1974-76 and returned to the post from 1987-89, failing to produce a winning season in either tenure.

The hiring of Morris came as something of a surprise, given the team’s clear interest in a coach of Belichick’s stature and its interviews with several youthful assistants, including Slowik, who were considered rising stars.

It will be especially interesting to see how the new coach is viewed by a fan base that had grown increasingly apathetic in the midst of six straight losing seasons and the Falcons’ failure to produce a Super Bowl title over their 58-year history.

Many thought owner Arthur Blank would go for a big name, given the thousands of empty seats that have become the norm at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Rams general manager Les Snead, as well as the team’s players, raved about Morris’ impact on a team that returned to the playoffs this season after missing out in 2022.

“I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of tampering charges,” Snead quipped, “because just about every player will text him wanting to play for him.”

Snead said Morris is “coded to … respect everyone, build a relationship with everyone, no matter where you’re at in the organization. As he does that, you just see the respect flow back in his direction.”

The Rams’ GM also noted Morris’ experience coaching both offense and defense.

“Let’s call it unique football acumen he had based on he’s coached in a defensive room and he’s actually coached in an offensive room,” Snead said. “There’s not many coaches in the planet who has been in both of those rooms. He’s going to give any organization an edge in just how collaborative he is. It’s going to be an edge most teams won’t be able to compete with.”

Under Morris this past season, the Rams’ defense ranked 20th in yards allowed (337.9 per game), 13th in passing yards (231.1), 12th in rushing yards (106.8) and 18th in scoring defense (22.3 points per game).

Morris is the fourth minority hire during this coaching cycle, joining Dave Canales in Carolina, Jerod Mayo in New England and Antonio Pierce in Las Vegas. The league’s minority coaches also include Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Houston’s DeMeco Ryans, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles, Miami’s Mike McDaniel and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh.

There are two openings left to be filled, in Seattle and Washington.

“This is a major milestone for the National Football League, which has been struggling to raise the percentage of head coaches of color, particularly Black head coaches,” said Richard Lapchick, founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport (TIDES). “The NFL has worked hard to put programs in place to make this happen and the rewards have finally come home.”

The Falcons seemed to be closing in on Belichick as their next coach after he flew into Atlanta on one of Blank’s private jets for a second interview last Friday.

But it wasn’t clear how he might mesh with Fontenot, who the Falcons decided to keep as GM after dumping Smith.

Blank insisted right from the start that Fontenot would retain control over personnel matters, with Fontenot and the new coach both reporting directly to team CEO Rich McKay. That would have been a big change for Belichick, who had total control over all football-related matters during his tenure in New England.

But, while speculation about Belichick swirled, the Falcons made it clear they were considering a large group of candidates that also included former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who wound up taking an offer from the Los Angeles Chargers, and ex-Tennesssee Titans coach Mike Vrabel.

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Maaddi reported from Tampa, Florida. AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Atlanta and Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this report.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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