This season has been a rollercoaster of emotions for not just the Falcons’ players, but for the staff and fans too. Dan Quinn was fired after losing the first five games of the season. Two of which were downright demoralizing losses — Dallas and Chicago. The news of Quinn’s termination was shortly followed by an announcement that Raheem Morris was to be named interim head coach. Since then, Morris has led a reinvigorated Falcons team to a 3-1 record. But Morris’ stint as interim is not without blemishes; the 23-22 loss against Detroit was just as infuriating as the two aforementioned losses under Quinn.
Hampton Pool, Wally Lemm, Mike Holovak, Don Coryell, and Marv Levy are the most notable head coaches who had success in their interim period. At 3-1, Raheem Morris is one of the winningest interim head coaches in league history in terms of winning percentage. This four-game stretch has generated some buzz for Morris to be brought back full-time in 2021. Peter Schrager on Good Morning Football explained his thought process on why Morris deserves to be the head coach in 2021. But the Falcons still have seven more games to determine how viable of a head coaching option he truly can be.
— GMFB (@gmfb) November 10, 2020
Regardless of how he finishes this year, he (among other minorities) will at least be acknowledged for the position. Arthur Blank ensured NFL Network’s Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter of just this, “We will be very intentional about making sure the candidate pool is rich with diverse candidates.” The Falcons owner also assured the pair that Morris would receive equal treatment as any other candidate would.
“Raheem will be looked at as any other coach will be. I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’s a good guy. I think he’s got a lot of credentials. He’s not the same man he was when he was 32 [and] became a head coach [with the Bucs]. Twelve years later, he’s matured a good bit. Thirty-two, it’s hard to be a head coach in the NFL. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to do. Twelve years later, I think he’s had a lot of great experiences, and I think he’s learned a lot, and I wish him all the success he could possibly have, for his benefit and our benefit.”
This 11 game stretch as interim is essentially Morris’ chance to showcase his ability as a head coach. There should be zero speculation from Blank on whether or not Morris is capable of winning with this large of a sample size. There have been two identities to this Falcons team — Dan Quinn’s Falcons and Raheem Morris’ Falcons. Thus, I will breakdown the Falcons performances this year as two separate entities, under Quinn (weeks 1-5) and under Morris (weeks 6-9). As both men specialize on the defensive side of the ball, the defensive trends will be the focus of this article.
Identifying how challenging former opponents have been is important to put Morris’ success into perspective. Using Sharpe Football Stats, I was able to determine that Quinn’s matchups were more difficult than his successor’s. The offensive and defensive efficiencies of the opposing teams were used as the criteria to determine the Falcons’ strength of schedule.
DQ | Weeks 1-5 (opponent, off./def. efficiency ranks): SEA, 4th/24th; DAL, 27th/23rd; CHI, 28th/4th; GB, 2nd/21st; CAR, 8th/26th
Raheem | Weeks 6-9 (opponent, off./def. efficiency ranks): MIN, 7th/15th; DET, 19th/25th; CAR, 8th/26th; DEN, 29th/9th
One discrepancy within this list is Dallas. The Cowboys are ranked at the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency, but the Falcons played the Cowboys (Week 2) when Dak Prescott was healthy and their offense was one of the league’s best. So even Dallas can be considered a difficult matchup. As you can see, Quinn’s opponents are more efficient on offense than Morris’s opponents. Defensively, Quinn’s matchups were less efficient than Morris’ matchups. During weeks 1-5, the average offensive efficiency rank was 13.8, and the average defensive rank was 19.6. Contrarily during weeks 6-9, the average offensive efficiency rank was 15.75, and the average defensive rank was 18.75. Simply put, the first five games were against better offenses and worse defenses than the last four were.
Using Sharpe Football Stats, I looked at the play selection (pass/run) and the success rate of the defense separated into two categories (weeks 1-5/weeks 6-9). Below are the game-by-game rates of how well the Falcons defended each offense’s rushing and passing attempts. The defense in the first five weeks allowed a 55% success rate when defending the run, and a 59% success rate when defending the pass. In the last four weeks, they allowed a 38% success rate when defending the run, and a 47% success rate when defending the pass.
DQ | Weeks 1-5 (opponent, rush/pass success rates): SEA, 55%/63%; DAL, 57%/60%; CHI, 56%/49%; GB, 42%/64%; CAR, 63%/63%
Raheem | Weeks 6-9 (opponent, rush/pass success rates): MIN, 31%/51%; DET, 33%/53%; CAR, 57%/42%; DEN, 27%/42%
It is challenging to interpret this statistic because the average success rates of the two categories suggest that Raheem’s defense was much more effective in forcing unsuccessful plays — both passing and on the ground. But remember, the offenses from the first five weeks were better than the past four offenses. Nevertheless, an exception exists as the Falcons have already played the Panthers before and after Quinn’s departure. This is the most telltale indicator of whether or not improvement exists. The Panthers, against Quinn, had a 63% success rate in both the run and pass game, while against Morris, they had a 57% success rate in the run and a 42% success rate when passing. Undoubtedly, the Panthers’ offense was more successful against Falcons under Quinn than Morris.
With a minor tweak to the criteria of the prior statistic, I found the success rates of rushing and passing attempts within the red zone from Sharpe Football Stats. During weeks 1-5, opposing offenses had a success rate of 57% when passing the ball and a 62% success rate when running the ball inside the 20-yard line. The last four weeks revealed minor improvements in both areas. Opposing offenses had a success rate of 53% when passing and 55% when running the ball in the red zone with Morris in charge. Again, a slight improvement can be partially attributed to the level of competition.
A good measurement to counterbalance the previously mentioned stats from Sharpe Football is the DVOA statistic from Football Outsiders. DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on the situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down. Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Whereas success rates are determined strictly by yardage gained without taking in to account the situation. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent, which is critical when analyzing two periods of one team. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.
DQ | Week 1-5) OffenseDVOA(League Rank)/DefenseDVOA(League Rank)/SpecialTeamsDVOA(League Rank):
1) 11.8% (10th)/ 38.9% (32nd)/ 1.1% (10th); 2) 3.8% (13th)/ 15.5% (28th)/ 2.1% (9th); 3) -0.8% (19th)/ 4.5% (20th)/ -3.4% (24th);
4) -1.8% (21st)/ 7.9% (25th)/ -3.8% (28th); 5) -4.5% (22nd)/ 8.9% (28th)/ -2.1% (23rd)
Raheem | Week 6-9) OffenseDVOA(league rank)/DefenseDVOA(League Rank)/SpecialTeamsDVOA(League Rank):
6) -2.4% (22nd)/ 7.1% (25th)/ -1.5% (22nd); 7) -4.1% (23rd)/ 8.7% (27th)/ -1% (21st); 8) -3.3% (23rd)/ 6.9% (22nd)/ -0.7% (18th);
9) -0.8% (20th)/ 5.8% (20th)/ -0.9% (19th)
There are a lot of numbers there that might cause confusion. Primarily, Quinn’s Falcons lacked consistency while Morris’ Falcons steadily improved compared to the rest of the league on average. Focusing on the defensive DVOA, the average league rank for the first five weeks was 26.6, while the last four weeks averaged a 23.5 ranking. This is especially important because the DVOA formula accounts for the opponents’ level of play. So, accounting for the tougher offenses faced under Quinn, the Falcons are still better defensively under Morris.
We focused mostly on defensive statistics because both Quinn and Morris have backgrounds on that side of the ball. But… the job of a head coach encompasses the offense, defense, and special teams, to which, I included offense and special teams DVOA for this exact reason. Outside of the first two weeks, the offense and special teams hover around the low twenties in the league rankings. There is little to no change in either of these models outside of the first two weeks because of the Falcons opponents in Weeks 1 and 2. Dallas and Seattle both have historically bad defenses, which facilitated the offense to the higher rankings those weeks, but dropped them when Dallas and Seattle played other teams poorly.
In summary, there has been a slight improvement statistically. So why are the Falcons winning more games? The culture within the locker room could have been positively affected when the change occurred. Players might have found greater motivation due to a sense of responsibility for Quinn being fired. Raheem Morris could be holding the entire team to a higher standard than before. There is no single answer as to why the team has won three out of the last four games, but one thing is certain. With the toughest stretch of games on the schedule coming up, we will soon find out if this team deserves to be kept together or dismembered, commencing a complete rebuild.