There is an old saying that "life is a full circle" and NFL head coaches Raheem Morris and Jon Gruden prove why that's certainly the case.
When Morris was 26 years old and in his first job as a coach in the NFL, it was Jon Gruden, then the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who showed him the ropes. Morris joined Gruden's coaching staff in 2002 as a defensive quality control coach and fast-forward 18 years, they'll be facing off against one another when Morris' Atlanta Falcons host Gruden's Las Vegas Raiders at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
Both Morris and Gruden have taken different paths to get where they are now, but nevertheless Sunday's matchup is a meaningful one for both coaches as they reminisce on how far they've come. Morris credits Gruden for teaching him the importance of work ethic when it comes to coaching and Gruden recalls some of the moments he shared coaching with Morris as some of the best times of his life.
"Raheem is a heck of a coach," Gruden said with a smile on his face. "He's a great guy and he knows the game inside out. I pull for him every week, except this week. I can't wait to see him, can't wait to compete against him and I know he's going to have those guys ready."
Gruden is in his third year as the Raiders' coach while Morris is five games into his stint as interim head coach of the Falcons. Morris was asked to take over after the Falcons parted ways with Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start.
But this isn't the first time Morris has been a head coach in the NFL, his first time came after Gruden was fired in Tampa Bay in 2009. Morris wore the following hats during his time on Gruden's staff: Defensive quality control (2002), defensive assistant (2003) and assistant defensive backs coach (2004-2005). Morris then left to become the defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 before returning to Gruden's staff once again in 2007 as the defensive backs coach. Following the 2008 season, Gruden promoted Morris to defensive coordinator and was fired a month later.
When the Buccaneers chose to replace Gruden with the 32-year-old Morris at the time, there were no hard feelings given the friendship that had been built. It was Gruden who told the youngest head coach at the time to "take it and run with it."
Morris has used the lessons he learned from Gruden at every stop in his career.
"He was one of the first people that taught me how to work, how to put time into it, how to come into work and absolutely beat people to work and thrive in that environment," Morris said. "The work ethic he brought to the game, how much he loved football, his care for his coaching staff and everyone around him."
Following Gruden's stint as the Buccaneers' head coach, he began his career as a broadcaster where he become one of the most beloved voices in TV. Gruden spent 11 years as the color analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and was a key part of ESPN's draft coverage hosting a show called "Jon Gruden's QB Camp."
While Gruden was enjoying his career in TV, Morris was continuing to build his coaching resume. After three seasons as the Buccaneers' head coach (2009-11), he joined the Washington Redskins' coaching staff as the defensive backs coach (2012-14). When Dan Quinn was hired as the head coach of the Falcons in 2015, one of the first hires he made was naming Morris assistant head coach/defensive backs coach. Morris has since then filled many roles in Atlanta from wide receivers coach (2016-19) to secondary coach for eight games in 2019 and then was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2020.
Morris and Gruden have different personalities and coaching styles but share similar qualities in terms of their ability to connect with their players. One of the main reasons owner Arthur Blank and president and CEO Rich McKay wanted Morris to lead the Falcons this season is his relationship with the players and coaches.
Gruden decided to return to coaching in 2018 and was hired by the Oakland Raiders who re-located and are now the Las Vegas Raiders. After a tough first year back in the NFL going 4-12, Gruden has put his stamp on his team and is seeing success because of it. The Raiders are 6-4 this season and are the only team to defeat the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1). Their offense ranks No. 7 in rushing (134.2 yards per game) and No. 8 in scoring offense (29.5 points per game). Quarterback Derek Carr is also playing at an MVP level in his third season with Gruden.
Since Morris has taken over as head coach in Atlanta, the Falcons have had more success on offense and defense. The Falcons rank No. 2 in passing offense (280.6 yards per game) and No. 16 in scoring offense (25.2 points per game). On defense, the Falcons have the ninth-best run defense (106.5 yards per game) and rank in the top-10 on third down defense (38.4 percent conversion rate). Morris has a 3-2 record as head coach of the Falcons and is hoping to add another win against Gruden.
But regardless of what the final score turns out to be, Morris will forever cherish the time he spent learning from Gruden at a young age.
"His love for football is just contagious," Morris said. "You can't help but be around him and find ways to love football. He's always big into personnel and people and his ability to go out and identify exactly what he wants in positions and to be able to evaluate those guys and get everybody around him to love football as much as he does is just something that is infectious."
The Atlanta Falcons have announced Raheem Morris as interim head coach.