Some of the most important moments happened 15 years ago, when almost nobody knew of Thomas Dimitroff. When he would trudge in from his job painting football fields for the Cleveland Browns, slump into a chair across from Scott Pioli, and wonder aloud, what the hell am I doing?
Pioli chuckles at the thought of those lunchtime meetings, when he was a scout working up through the ranks for the Browns, and Dimitroff was far, far removed from his current perch as the celebrated 42-year-old architect of the Atlanta Falcons. Long before Pioli would carve out his own esteemed reputation as an executive with the New England Patriots, and long before Dimitroff would vault from that franchise to become general manager and central redeemer of the 9-5 Falcons.
"Thomas would come in and there were times where he'd just be covered in paint. He'd have it in his hair and he'd stink from sweat," Pioli said. "We would be talking and I'm like 'Thomas, get a shower.' "
It was the time in Dimitroff's life when, as Pioli put it, "He was just waiting and hoping for the break."
This is a common yarn for personnel men, who all collect tales of woe while crossing the NFL's scouting tundra. But even amongst the most hardened talent evaluators, Dimitroff's path was as unique as it was scattered – from the Canadian Football League in Saskatchewan, to the dying moments of the World League of American Football, to a little-known corporate football league in Japan.
It's a winding path that lends itself to one of the best stories in the NFL this season: how Thomas Dimitroff went from painting football fields to resurrecting a scorched Falcons franchise and leaving the outside world to wonder how the hell did he do it?
Fraught with pitfalls
It was a staggering nexus – football's version of a hurricane coming ashore in the midst of an earthquake.
One year ago at this time, Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick was incarcerated; Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall was seeking a trade; and head coach Bobby Petrino had abruptly quit after 13 games. And if that wasn't enough, a courtship with Bill Parcells ended in an embarrassing snub when he headed for Miami to take over football operations for the Dolphins.
"People 20, 30, 40 years in the NFL said 'There's nobody that ever went through a year like you went through last year,' " Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. "There's no franchise in the history of the league that ever did."
Eventually, this was the mess Dimitroff inherited. He took a team that some said would take years to fix, and mended it in his first offseason. And he did it in the best way possible – with a strong draft class, and free-agent signings that were used to accentuate existing talent.
A first-year foray that lived up to the billing of former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who called Blank and championed Dimitroff as the right man for the job.
"Very smart guy," Accorsi told Blank. "A little different."
In the world of personnel, those six words are the framework of Dimitroff's pigeon hole. The son of former Boston Patriots quarterback and football lifer Tom Dimitroff, Thomas always seemed slightly removed from the NFL scouting assembly line. Over the years, he has gotten sideways glances over his hair – which was once long and at the shoulders, but is now tall and spiky. He's been called a "spy" by one college coach because he didn't look like a typical scout.
"Everyone has something that they are attached to," Thomas Dimitroff said. "There can be some good things, and there can be some things that aren't very good. I think that has stuck with me – that I didn't beat to the same drum always. Maybe I was a little alternative in my approach. And yet, I really felt like in the end I would come through."
But it wouldn't come without some arrows flung in his direction. He was given a hard time during the 13 years he was a vegan, and still gets the occasional sideways glance for being a vegetarian. While living in Boulder, Colo., and scouting for the Detroit Lions, Dimitroff indulged his enthusiasm for fitness, cycling, rock climbing and snowboarding. Even his demeanor, which has a diplomatic and philosophical feel to it, has been mistaken for West Coast ambivalence.
"I had no issue that he was 'from Boulder' and all the things that theoretically meant – long hair, snowboarder and all that kind of stuff," Blank said. "What impressed me with what Ernie Accorsi told me is 'This is a very smart young man who has great experience, a fine pedigree, and the fact that he came out of the New England system … all those things are really important to me."
But criticisms naturally come with being a personnel man in the NFL – you are part of a cannibalistic tribe that prides itself on sizing up not only the players, but the other members of the scouting community.
"There are a lot of things that just aren't mainstream for this business from a perception standpoint," Pioli said. "I think at times people have not been fair in their judgments of him, in terms of how passionate he is about football and how good he is at what he does, and how smart he is.
"Because of his personal lifestyle, he doesn't appear to be a stereotypical football guy."
And yet, in some aspects – particularly the journey across the scouting desert – he couldn't be more traditional.
Dimitroff was born in Ohio but spent much of his youth in Canada. He played defensive back at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. His first scouting job after college would be in the prairies of Saskatchewan with the Roughriders – a two-year stint that involved him in virtually every aspect under the personnel umbrella, from tickets to scouting to promotion and operations. All the while, he earned $16,000 a year and rode his bike though the snow to the team's facility.
When a regime change in the franchise had Dimitroff moving to the video department, he left for the Dallas-based office of the World League of American Football, where he split up an 18-month duration as a self-described "plebe-like administrator". When the league folded, he headed to – where else? – Japan, to join a friend who was coaching a corporate league football team.
Spending his free time hanging out in Shinjuku Station, enjoying sake and stretching his cultural horizons, this is nearly where the football trail went off a cliff. With a pad-less Dimitroff teaching tackling drills to team Hitachi players who understood little English, they often looked at their coach like he was crazy.
And it might have ended at that, with Dimitroff considering staying and teaching English, and moving on from his NFL aspirations. It wasn't entirely unusual. At various times, Dimitroff had thought about going into the business world.
But as often happened in his life, his father Tom was there to play the centering force, focusing and renewing his son's dream. And with Dimitroff in another country, his father delivered a singular dose of reality: NFL teams weren't going to find Dimitroff in Japan. He needed to come home and join his father, who was scouting with the Browns.
After a few months, that's where Dimitroff ended up, working on Cleveland's grounds crew, writing reports part-time for the Kansas City Chiefs, and forming a lasting bond with Pioli.
After several months of field maintenance, the Detroit Lions offered a full-time scouting position. Dimitroff was officially on his way. He'd eventually return to Cleveland's personnel department before rejoining Pioli in New England in 2002.
His father would eventually succumb to cancer in 1996, but it was his call that ultimately set Dimitroff onto a track that was unimaginable only a few years earlier.
The right choice
It didn't take Arthur Blank long to know he had made the right decision. Forget the lovefest over Dimitroff's hiring, which was locked with a detailed presentation via teleconference. Forget the free-agent coups, which included the signing of running back Michael Turner. Dimitroff's budding relationship with new head coach Mike Smith, and their work together on the NFL draft board became Atlanta's shining moment – particularly when the phones were ringing and quarterback Matt Ryan was hanging in the balance.
On one line, the Baltimore Ravens wanted to move up for Ryan. On the other, the St. Louis Rams were sitting one spot ahead of Atlanta and using Baltimore's interest in Ryan as leverage to try to squeeze Atlanta into moving up to the No. 2 spot to get their man.
It was a moment ripe for panic. But Dimitroff, who had spent six years in New England watching Pioli in this type of situation, seized on advice his friend had given him: Trust your instincts, and trust your draft. Don't be manipulated.
"I was impressed he didn't act 'stupidly' [saying] 'I'm not taking the phone call. I know what I'm doing,' " Blank said. "We took all those phone calls. It's not like we didn't listen. [Thomas] did listen. At the end of the day, he went around the room. He listened, expressed himself and he and [Mike Smith] made the decision."
By the end of the draft, Dimitroff had selected quarterback Matt Ryan, who he was certain was special; left tackle Sam Baker, who he was sure could fit the same position at the pro level; starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton; and cornerback Chevis Jackson and wideout Harry Douglas. All that was left was to meld the pieces into a talent base that Dimitroff believed was better than advertised, and a coaching staff that Blank thought was vastly underrated.
"Honestly, I think there were guys in the locker room who felt a little shaky about the moves at first," defensive end John Abraham said. "You were talking about a rookie quarterback, a rookie tackle, and a running back who had never been a starter before. But that's why [Dimitroff] is who he is. He came from a winning organization."
Fourteen games later?
"I don't think there is anyone in the locker room who isn't shocked about how things have flipped," Abraham said.
For now, that might be the ultimate validation. A personnel man who was nitpicked and pigeon holed and run to another continent and back has earned the ultimate form of respect: faith in his plan. Surely, the expectations are only beginning, along with a public microscope more brutal than anything he's faced from the scouting community.
And when that moment comes, it will likely be his father's words that prove most critical. A few months before his passing, Tom Dimitroff urged his son to stick to his core beliefs – both in his work and in his life.
"He had said to me 'You stick to what you believe in,' " Dimitroff said. "[He said] 'That's what is getting you to where you are. Don't deviate. Stay the course. You're doing things the right way, even if they are a little anti-establishment. In the end, your work ethic and abilities will come through."
One year into Dimitroff's greatest opportunity, truer words have never been spoken.
- Scott Pioli
- Thomas Dimitroff