Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff came from humble football beginnings. Born in Ohio, he actually grew up in Canada, where his father, Tom Senior, was a football coach. After graduating from Guelph college, Dimitroff held positions at the World League of American Football and even had a brief stint in Japan helping out a friend’s corporate football team.
He held a host of scouting jobs throughout the 1990s both north and south of the border, including posts at the Lions and Chiefs. The most telling employment he found, though, was as back in Ohio at the very start of the decade. Dimitroff joined the grounds crew of the Cleveland Browns while a certain Bill Belichick was head coach. That job came at a time when he says he was ready to walk away from the sport. I don’t buy it, though. Not for one second. You don’t take the gig cutting the training ground turf if you don’t ‘want in’ for the long haul.
Fast forward ten years and Belichick, now at the New England Patriots, hired Dimitroff as a national scout. In 2003, Dimitroff was made Director of College Scouting. You don’t get a job like that, working for the greatest head coach in NFL history, by chance. You have to be a grafter, have a real eye for talent, and an understanding the team’s rather complex system from top to bottom…. Oh, and you also have to satisfy the most discerning coach in the game (just ask Jamie Collins about what is takes to be a BB guy).
Falcons Being Falcons
After 6 successful seasons with the Pats, Dimitroff made the move to Atlanta and became GM. With Mike Smith recruited from Jacksonville to take on the mantle of head coach, The Falcons proceeded to perform exactly as you would expect the Falcons to. In the playoffs one year, out the next. Strong starts and November capitulations. World beaters one week. Weak links the other.
This ‘not quite but nearly’ stuff meant that the Atlanta Falcons continued to fly under the radar. In fact, in 2015, Dimitroff was in danger of losing his job. Dan Quin was brought in as Head Coach. A 5-0 start ended in an 8-8 season.
At the start of 2016 no one was talking about the Falcons. No one ever does, though, right?!
An unfashionable part of the country. No big characters. No cult heroes. No marketable superstars. (Matt Ryan is as good as they come but I would sooner talk to the hotdog stall attendant than spend any meaningful time with the league’s dreariest QB). A defence that could be picked apart by an above average offence with a half decent co-ordinator behind them. They’ll win some. They’ll lose some, but no one really cares.
Well……A year on, the Falcons find themselves in the Superbowl. There is cohesion both on and off the field. It’s a group full of confidence. The evolution from ‘also rans’ into one the most exciting ball clubs in the NFL has been hugely impressive. Exciting! The Falcons! And for the next three or four years, they’ll be right up challenging for Championships.
How has this happened?
They are reaping the rewards of Dimitroff’s recent recruitment policy. The GM’s approach in the past couple of years has been about building an ethos similar to that of the Browns in the 90s and the Pats of the 00s. He brought in his old pal Scott Pioli as his assistant who was with him in Cleveland and New England. In Quin, the Falcons have a guy from humble football beginnings. A grafter with a real eye for talent. Kyle Shanahan may be off to San Francisco soon, but his appointment in 2015 was a nod to meticulous preparation and a well thought out, if rather complex system.…you get the idea.
The defence that Dan Quin and Richard Smith are building is brimming with potential. Quin’s association with the Seahawks is often talked about. His policy of speed over size mentioned plenty. We know he wants ‘fly-to-the-ball’ guys. He’s got them now in abundance.
Vic Beasley. Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’vondre Campbell, Grady Jerrett all came from the last two drafts. They, particular Keanu Neal, are repaying the faith shown in them. There’s real talent both sides of the ball now. And they’re learning. Fast. The ability to pressure Wilson and Rogers (the Packers may have been beaten up, but still) showed that this group are a very different proposition to the lot that pitched up at the start of the season.
It’s this young, mobile, hungry band led by Smith that means that the Falcons will no longer capitulate. They will end the tag of ‘nearly men’ or bottlers. These Falcons can win on the road and handle cold weather. These Falcons are capable of challenging for some time to come.
The Browns Connection
There will be a lot said about the historical links between Bill Belichick, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli. But it’s not
just in the front office that former Browns are making waves in Atlanta. The connection on the playing staff that can’t be ignored.
The Falcons traded up in the draft with the Browns to get Julio Jones in 2011. If Jones puts up decent numbers this weekend, he will be confirmed as the best Wide Out in the league.
Alex Mack has been strong at Centre for Atlanta, his move down south coinciding with the Cleveland O line losing its way in recent years.
Then there’s Taylor Gabriel. Being a number 3 guy in an Atlanta offence with an elite quarter back and a tonne of other weapons means that no18 can be a real big play threat. Being the number 3 guy in Cleveland who have no coaching continuity and no QB, well….He was always going to look like a different player in Georgia. Not for the first time, the Browns loss was the Falcons gain.
Picking up Sanu from the Bengals was a good bit of business. Indeed, Belichick sees him as a real threat in the ‘big one’ on Sunday.
Whatever happens in this season’s show piece in Houston, though, the Falcons are clearly on the rise. And for Thomas Dimitroff? The lawnmower man’s garden is looking pretty rosy.