Dan Morgan’s dad was a roofer. His mom was a hairstylist, running a salon out of the basement of their Philadelphia home.
So hard work courses through the veins of the Buffalo Bills’ new director of player personnel.
"I didn't grow up easy," Morgan said in his first interview with The Buffalo News since being hired last month. “My parents definitely taught me the work ethic and if you want something, you go get it – no matter what. So that's just always been my attitude."
It served him well as a player. Morgan was the 11th overall pick in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. Injuries cut short what was a stellar playing career, forcing him into retirement after the 2007 season.
That work ethic also has served him well in his post-playing career as an NFL executive.
"You don't get anywhere in life if you don't put the work in," Morgan said. "If you're not willing to work, someone else is going to get that job."
That’s why Morgan was willing to get his start in scouting at the lowest level – taking an internship with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. He advanced up the ranks to director of pro personnel under Seattle General Manager John Schneider.
Needing a replacement for Brian Gaine, who left the Bills’ front office earlier this offseason to become the Houston Texans’ general manager, Buffalo GM Brandon Beane brought Morgan aboard last month.
"When I talked to him when he first got going in scouting, I asked, ‘What do they have you doing?’ He was like, ‘Brandon, I was taking guys to the airport,’ ” Beane said. “I was like,‘How did that feel? You used to be the one getting picked up at the airport as a first-round draft pick. He's like, ‘Man, I'm good. I want to learn what everybody's done.’
"He doesn’t want anybody to think he's skipped a step. He takes pride in that. That's just who he is. That's what you love about him."
Beane, of course, was a member of the Panthers’ front office when Morgan was drafted.
"Some guys are first-round picks based off just God-given talent. Dan had talent, don't get me wrong, but he was like Luke Kuechly before Luke Kuechly,” Beane said. “It was so similar when we drafted Luke. It was like, ‘Oh, this is Dan Morgan again.’ He worked hard. He was a leader in the huddle.”
Morgan’s defining game as a player came in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots, when he was credited with a whopping 18 tackles.
"He may have been the MVP of that game had we come out on top,” Beane said. “You wouldn’t know it talking to him. You've got to pull it out of him. He was a really good college and pro player and would have played more if injuries would not have caught up to him.”
In college at Miami, Morgan became the first player ever to win the three top defensive awards available to linebackers: the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker), the Bednarik Award (nation's top defensive play by the Maxwell Football Club) and the Nagurski Award (nation's top defensive player by the Football Writers Association of America). He was also the first player in Hurricanes’ history to be named a team captain by a vote of his teammates for three seasons.
His rookie year in Carolina wasn’t as successful. After an impressive win over the Daunte Culpepper- and Randy Moss-led Vikings, the Panthers lost their next 15 games.
"It's hard to win,” Morgan said with a laugh about what he learned that year. “You've got to enjoy the games you do win, because each week's not guaranteed.”
Things quickly got better, as the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl two years later. Morgan was a Pro Bowl selection in 2004 after making 101 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. The one thing he couldn’t do is stay healthy.
Morgan never played a full 16-game season, and over his final two seasons in Carolina appeared in just four games.
Now 39, Morgan still looks like he could play. He took about two years off after retiring, helping his wife with their three kids and assisting in the operation of their doggy day care business in Charlotte, which they still own. Getting back into football, however, was Morgan’s goal, “because it’s what I know.”
Most former players go the coaching route if they want to stay involved in the game, but Morgan took a different path.
"I just love evaluating players,” he said. “Sitting there watching tape, breaking guys down, that’s fun for me. I never wanted to coach. Just never really had that in me. Personnel was what I loved and what I set my sights on.
"I love it. I'll usually get a workout in in the morning, then I'll go upstairs and pour a cup of coffee and I'll sit down and grind tape all day, just to find players.”
Morgan’s pool of players will expand in his new role. While he got some college scouting experience in Seattle, that will expand in Buffalo.
"I'll still be heavily involved on the pro side, but I'll definitely be on the road a lot more than I'm used to,” he said. “I'll probably scout the top 100, 150 college players. There are GMs who have only went the pro route and there are GMs who only went the college route, so to have both of those, I think, is added value.”
From now through the middle of September, when the 53-man roster is set and practice squads around the NFL are graded, Beane said the primary focus for the team’s front office is on the pro side. After that, Morgan and assistant general manager Joe Schoen will focus more of their attention on college players, while Beane and Malik Boyd, the team’s director of pro personnel, handle the NFL level.
"You flip back and forth in the role he's in,” Beane said of Morgan.
Schoen was also part of the Carolina front office when Morgan was a player, so there’s another layer of familiarity here.
"That's a big reason I came here, just to be a part of that team,” Morgan said. “Brandon and Joe gave me a great opportunity to come in here and grow and help this organization out, which is super exciting for me and my family.”
When he was hired by the Bills, several national media members opined that Beane had made a shrewd move.
“Big news here. Dan Morgan has done great work in Seattle,” Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne tweeted.
“Dan Morgan to the Bills is an excellent move. He was a rising star for the Seahawks and will immediately help impact Brandon Beane and an impressive Buffalo front office,” Yahoo Sports’ Jordan Schultz tweeted.
“Worked his way up with the Seahawks, who hate to lose him but have been building him up the past few years,” NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo tweeted.
Beane had Morgan on his radar after taking over as a GM.
“There are a lot of guys who have a skill set to do this job, but I know Dan's a culture fit,” he said. “We got to know him as a different person, not just as a player. We see him at the combine, Senior Bowl and other places. Chat with him, exchange ideas, try and talk ball with people to see if you've got like minds. ... I felt all that was a perfect fit.”
In a little more than a year, Beane has built a front office that is widely respected around the NFL. Gaine left to become a GM. Lake Dawson, the team’s assistant college scouting director, got two interviews with the Panthers for their GM opening. It’s not hard to envision a day when Schoen and Morgan get looks at running their own team, as well.
“We all care, and we're all competitive,” Beane said. “That's what I’m looking for. Guys who want to be the best at what we're asking them to do, whether it's college or pro. If we're playing golf or darts or whatever, I want guys who want to leave it on the line. Dan fits in that. Gaine fit in that.”
Beane’s only advice to the GMs-in-waiting on his staff is simple.
"Let it come to you,” he said. “Don't try and force it. It'll happen when it happens. That's the way it was for me. You really can't force when you're going to get that GM job. Joe, Dan, whoever, they're all like, ‘hey, I'm just happy to be here. I want to be a part of what we're building here.’ Whenever that time comes, we'll see what happens down the road.”
The Seahawks won a Super Bowl and should have repeated – why didn’t you run the ball, Pete Carroll? – while Morgan was in their front office.
"Shoot, I learned a ton in Seattle," he said. "John Schneider, I basically worked hand in hand with him every day. He involved me in everything. He asked my opinion on everything. I cut guys there. I did pretty much everything a GM would do. So he definitely kept me heavily involved in everything and taught me a ton. He helped groom me and helped bring me up and make me into what I am right now.”
Morgan, however, felt like he had reached his ceiling with the Seahawks.
"John didn't want me to leave, all the guys I worked with didn't want to leave, but sometimes you've got to go and spread your wings a little bit," he said. "The opportunity for me to come work with Brandon and Joe was one that I didn't want to pass up."