Falcons ‘ace’ GM faces tougher Round 2

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He teetered in the tee box and admired his shot, overcome by that surreal sensation of watching his ball bounce on the pristine green and disappear into nothingness. Of all the people who figured to be standing in these golf spikes – at Augusta National, no less – there were few NFL executives less likely than Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a guy who worked his way up the personnel ladder while evaluating college players by day and sleeping in a VW van by night.

Once routinely derided in scouting circles as a tofu-loving longhair, Dimitroff was living a dream that would make most members of the establishment swoon. Here he was at Augusta’s Par 3 course on a beautiful mid-March morning, having joined Falcons coach Mike Smith and several of his assistants as guests of owner Arthur Blank, unsure how to react to his first hole-in-one.

Did decorum prevent a full-bore celebration? Dimitroff wasn’t sure, and he stood motionless for a couple of seconds.

Photo Dimitroff, left, with Blank at Falcons’ training camp last summer.
(John Amis/AP Photo)

Then, suddenly, the reigning NFL executive of the year was living a scene out of “Happy Gilmore.” The other three members of his playing group went crazy, and one of them, tight ends coach Chris Scelfo, wrapped Dimitroff in a bear hug. The foursome ahead, which included Blank and Smith, also began rejoicing in a conspicuous manner.

“I looked up,” Dimitroff recalls, “and Mr. Blank and Smitty were jumping around and pumping their arms in the air.”

Later that evening, after the group had completed rounds on the Par 3 and championship courses, Dimitroff, now being called “Ace” by all in attendance, ordered some expensive wine with dinner and prepared to fork over some serious cash, as per custom. The bill, however, never arrived at his table.

That’s the kind of charmed life that Dimitroff, 42, is enjoying after engineering one of the more amazing franchise makeovers in NFL history. Less than 15 months ago, the Falcons were a listless last-place team whose most prominent player, Michael Vick, was in a federal prison. Dimitroff, then the Patriots’ virtually anonymous director of college scouting, was being interviewed by Blank (who’d just been spurned by top choice Bill Parcells) for the vacant GM job via videoconference.

Now? Dimitroff is a highly respected personnel chief who can’t even buy a meal after a hole-in-one. That’s what a shrewd, off-the-beaten-path coaching hire (Smith, the NFL’s coach of the year in ’08), a home run free-agent signing (former San Diego Chargers backup halfback Michael Turner, who finished tied for second in the MVP voting) and a terrific draft class led by a shockingly mature quarterback (offensive rookie of the year Matt Ryan) will do for a guy.

The Falcons’ seven-game improvement between ’07 and ’08 and the team’s first playoff appearance in four years brought some buzz to Hotlanta heading into Dimitroff’s second offseason.

Well, at least for a little while it did. Shortly after Atlanta’s 30-24 playoff defeat to the Arizona Cardinals in January, the long-suffering fan base’s cynicism resurfaced.

“We were feeling positive about what we’d accomplished, and right after the season, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article that talked about how the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons,” Dimitroff says. “Mike and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s good. It gives us something to shoot for.’ ”

Remarkably, in the 2½ months since, Dimitroff has taken some shots from fans and commentators frustrated by the team’s passive approach to free agency. The signing of former Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson barely made a ripple when juxtaposed with the departures of five Atlanta defenders, including popular veterans Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy.

Given Dimitroff’s golden touch a year ago, as well as his publicly stated philosophies about building through the draft and valuing the retention of a team’s core players, the criticism caught him off guard.

“There have been people who’ve questioned our approach,” he says. “It’s funny – I came in here talking about the system I was brought up in, in New England, and the principle of building through the draft. I talked about it ad nauseum, in fact. I also believe you have to approach every draft and every free-agency period for what it is in that particular year.

“Last year, we had to approach free agency and the draft with urgency, because we had a lot to do. This year, the way I perceive it, is that part of free agency is keeping the guys you have on your team. There are guys that played well for us last year who were basically like free agents to Mike and me, because we didn’t know them. There were players like [defensive tackle Jonathan] Babineaux and [wideout Michael] Jennings who buy into our concept and fit the mold of what we’re about, and we wanted to use the preemptive approach to get them re-signed.”

The Falcons have also retained role players like defensive tackle Jason Jefferson, linebacker Coy Wire and tight end Justin Peelle, none of which qualifies as a sexy transaction. Last year, by contrast, Dimitroff dealt disgruntled cornerback DeAngelo Hall to Oakland, cut halfback Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler and brought in a free-agent class that included safety Erik Coleman, tight end Ben Hartsock and kicker Jason Elam.

Blank, to his credit, is an aggressive owner who doesn’t hesitate to write fat checks for players he believes can help the Falcons win. And Dimitroff, to his credit, isn’t taking advantage of his owner’s proactive mentality and gratuitously assembling another high-profile free-agent class.

Dimitroff and Smith believe that young defensive holdovers like middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, cornerback Chevis Jackson and safety Thomas DeCoud will have a chance to step up and become key contributors who help fill the leadership void.

Photo Milloy spent three years with the Falcons.
(Dale Zanine/US Presswire)

“There have been some questions about our defensive leadership,” Dimitroff says. “We think [defensive end] John Abraham is a key leader for us, along with Erik Coleman and Mike Peterson and budding young guys like Babineaux and Lofton. Did we lose some leaders, i.e. Brooking and Milloy? Yes. That’s part of the business, and it was in our best interest to move on. But in no way do I feel like we have a void.”

Besides, if Dimitroff worried too much about other people’s perceptions, he never would’ve behaved on the scouting circuit as some sort of counterculture caricature, with a vegan diet (he has since resumed eating fish and dairy) to boot.

“When Thomas was a West Coast scout for the Lions [in the mid-’90s], a lot of people in the business tended to write him off as a guy with crazy hair who cared more about riding his bike or snowboard,” says Eagles national scout Matt Russell, a close friend of Dimitroff’s who worked with him in the Patriots’ personnel department. “There were times when he’d go from school to school in his VW van, and after a long day of scouting he’d go back to a campground and type reports in the van and grill up some garden burgers – and obviously that wasn’t the norm in our business.

“What some people didn’t realize was how passionate he was about football. He has a great eye for talent, and he’s incredibly organized, maybe the most organized person I’ve ever met. It’s not surprising to me that he’s doing as well as he is.”

Ask Dimitroff about the way he was once typecast by his peers, and there’s no trace of bitterness.

“Hey, we’re scouts,” he says. “We all judge people – that’s our job. So I never once held that against other people. Everyone, in my mind, is pigeonholed in a sense. As long as that pigeonhole isn’t full of crap, it’s not a problem. You can be perceived as an earthy guy who’d rather be in the mountains snowboarding or a guy who’d rather go to the opera, but as long as you’re also perceived as a guy who’s working hard and who’s not full of [expletive], it’s all right. In the end it’s all about focus and passion for the game of football.”

Besides, Dimitroff cleans up nice. “I have my fair share of suits and ties – more than I ever dreamed I’d be wearing,” he says. “Obviously, I’ve acquiesced in certain ways, and I’m fine with it.”

He’s got the hole-in-one at Augusta to prove it.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

“What a great article and a sad one on Jeff George. This guy has been demonized like no other. You mentioned the Redskins – their owner had it right, he went and got Jeff but he was matched with Marty S. and it wasn’t going to work. But can you imagine and this would be a great story – bliss just wasn’t in the air – what if Jeff had been there in Washington to be the QB for what’s the college coach’s name who replaced Marty S? The pass offense guy? That was the match made in heaven!!! All he needed was Jeff George, but they got cold feet or a bad taste because he wasn’t the guy for Marty S. I mean who is? Until his last year in San Diego, he was no friend of the pass and the most conservative coach around. No one will hire him because the game has moved past his way of playing, even at 14-2 with his final record. All Jeff George ever needed was a coach who said, ‘You’re my guy.’ Look at what he did in Oak and Minn? Denny Green releasing him was a stab in the back and then once he was not coaching anymore he was a host on a football program saying how all these teams should sign Jeff George!!!! You should get an interview with him too. It wasn’t anything in Oak that had him out. They hired ‘Chucky’ who was young and probably afraid of rumors. Jeff George set records in Oak. In Minnesota they were like the 1a to the No. 1 greatest show on turf, the Rams. Was it his fault they lost that game? He understands offenses and has a cannon arm. In Chicago, we would have a Super Bowl if they had let him play. Look at the bums they were playing that year and had him on the roster!!!!! But these coaches commit to the unproven overrated young QB and they know that if you have a guy with Pro-Bowl talent and he’s sitting, it will disrupt the team. ‘Why isn’t he starting?’ will be the undertone. Look at the Bears. I mean what a mess and they had the guy. Great, great article. I would love to get any stories ever written about the guy. Ask Deion Sanders. He’s said it many times: Jeff George is great. Ask him to name the top three QB’s he’s faced. It’s really a shame.”

Osmond Scott
Chicago

For those of you who accuse me of being the president of the Jeff George Fan Club, I present Mr. Osmond Scott.


“A lead story on Jeff George? I love your writing but the only story I have less interest in is Dubya’s new library.”

Rod

Dubya has books?


“Just a comment, after reading Jeff George’s thoughts on his possible return, I have only two words: ‘Uncle Rico.’ ”

Chris Acompora
Hamilton, N.Y.

In the spirit of Napoleon Dynamite, I have, on behalf of Jeff George (and, for that matter, Osmond Scott), only two words in response: Shut up!


“Indiana accent? What does that mean? I am from Indiana and I am a little offended. I think we are the one state with the least amount of accent. What [about] George going to this new football league that is getting set up?”

Greg Hobby
Crown Point, Ind.

Dude, I am like totally sorry that this Californian made that gnarly comment about accents. That’s hella harsh, and I can see why you’re not at all stoked. As for the new football league that’s allegedly starting up, Denny Green is coaching one of the teams, so I wouldn’t completely rule it out.


“Mike: Always good to see Cowboys’ VP Stephen Jones, one of the great evaluators of football talent and a maven on the intricacies of the position of QB, giving his expert take on Jeff Goerge. I’ll bet when he removes that silver spoon and gets permission from his daddy to speak, he has all sorts of wonderful opinions about the wildcat offense, the directional running game of the Broncos and the trapping style of the Steelers OL. Yeah, that Stephen Jones knows of what he speaks. He and his papa buy up some of the best used talent in the NFL and have such a feel for chemistry that they just push all the right buttons and – even without Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcels – they actually manage to win games … albeit not playoff games. Those type of wins are reserved for people who understand the game. Hey Michael, are you good at math? How’s this equation sit with you: Jerry and Stephens Jones minus Jimmy Johnson’s roster equals no playoff wins in 13 years. If there were ever an owner who’s ego and massive ignorance of his product led to more acrimony and failure than Jerry Jones, it would only be your close pal, Daniel Snyder. My vote still goes to Jerry Jones – a moron, an egomaniac and an obstructionist to his team’s success. It’s too funny how people actually think this guy is anything but a deep pocket. He certainly isn’t a football guy. Shalom!!”

Jerry Logan

Damn, you’d think we were talking about the Clippers or something. You may dislike the way Jerry and Stephen Jones carry themselves, and it’s legitimate to question their methodology, but to assert that they’re morons is pretty absurd. It’s amazing: Ernie Accorsi was a former PR guy who became general manager of the Giants. Marty Hurney was, of all things, a sportswriter before becoming GM of the Panthers. They, like plenty of business-side people who ascend to positions that include personnel evaluation, were treated as legitimate by a majority of fans. Yet somehow it’s universally assumed that Jerry Jones, a wildly successful businessman who played college football and threw himself full-bore into NFL management upon buying the Cowboys – a man who, incidentally, was the only person on earth who considered Jimmy Johnson a top-flight NFL head coaching candidate at that time – can’t possibly know anything about the game? I must be missing something.


“Just wanted to tell you that that was a great article on Jeff George. Can’t believe he’s only 41! And the Steve Miller reworking is one of the best parodies [if you may] I have ever read. Awesome man!”

Truck
Maple, Ontario

Thanks, man. Keep on Truckin’ …


“Once again, a great lyric-altered song. As a musician, I must compliment your choice of songs … and as a dedicated football fan, I applaud your lyrical content, as well. I’d rather enjoy a full NFL parody album of your material! In any case, I certainly look forward to your next column.”

Adam Schmitt
Kenosha, Wis.

Dude, go to my archives, hit the studio, put it on vinyl and soon I’ll be backstage watching you open for Spinal Tap.


“Your comment concerning Mr. Moats is truly uncalled for. The suggestion that you would have ended up in jail is unfair to Mr. Moats and the situation. Mr. Moats did as the unyielding officer commanded and Mr. Moats should be commended for not going overboard. His action of responsibility saved further grief and misery for his family vs if he had defied the officer and an altercation was to follow. Shame on you sir for suggesting how tough you are with your chest thumping comment … and shame on you for belittling Mr. Moats’ calm behavior. Feel free to contact me at your leisure.”

Glen Richardson
Galax, Va.

Shame on you for reading way too much into a comment that was pretty uncomplicated. I wasn’t chest-thumping or in any way belittling Mr. Moats. I was merely saying that he’s a better man than I, since if I were the one in that situation (racing with family members to see a dying loved one) I’m fairly sure I would’ve said something that landed me in the slammer, and/or made a run for the hospital elevator.


“Sir; Every ounce of common sense I had told me not to pursue the Andre Smith looking for beads link, I guess I need more common sense. You owe me one breakfast, were it a video, you would be hearing from my lawyer. All is forgiven after seeing the Colbert video. I don’t know what was better, Colbert’s bit or the editing job on Steele, brilliant stuff!”

Tom Oatway
Newport, R.I.

When a photo of a shirtless NFL offensive line prospect is more disgusting than, immediately below it, a reference to placing one’s hand in dog feces, it’s a pretty scary world.


“Great story about two great women! My brother was a Hall of Fame football player at Cal [Ed White] and my daughter was a walk-on swimmer at Cal for Teri McKeever who was rewarded with a Big C for her efforts! As a major Bear donor, I also appreciate the outstanding work of our outstanding AD, Sandy Barbour, in keeping [and recruiting] outstanding coaching talent at Cal for all the right reasons!!! Thank you for contributing this excellent article! All the best, Go Bears!!!”

Paul F. White
Dallas

For those of you too young to remember Paul’s brother, he was a smash-mouth guard who made four Pro Bowls during a tremendous 17-year NFL career. (Whereas Paul is merely one of the most renowned anesthesiologists in the country.) As for MC Sandy Barbour, she’s got skillz.


“Michael, Love your column, I read it regularly. Your piece last week on athletes’ choices to attend or not to attend professional draft preparations was great. I’m curious though, have you considered doing a first NFL mock draft before next month’s annual pay for potential sweepstakes? I would really like to hear what you think certain teams would do with their picks. P.S. Your beloved Bears beat my Bulldogs in the first round of the women’s NCAA tourney … congrats.”

Joshua Art
Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.

I’ve considered doing a mock draft – for about five seconds. And, citing massive self-boredom, I’ve rejected the idea. However, I’ll be back with my fifth annual Ultimate Mock Draft, which includes current players and is pretty far from boring, in the next few weeks. As for my Bears, they got taken out by mighty UConn on Sunday, but not before giving the Huskies a good first-half scare. And though it pains me to say goodbye to the great Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton, with the top recruiting class in the country coming in, that first half was a harbinger of things to come.


“I enjoyed your article on Jason Smith, and your perspective on his maturity. I hope the NFL teams appreciate what he brings to the table in terms of talent, attitude and maturity. He sounds like the type of guy I would love to draft were it up to me. Very few NFL players are that centered, as I am sure you can attest. And while I have this moment, I have a request: Don’t let Jacksonville go too long without a good rip. It has been a while, and we miss the abuse!”

Mike Zambetti
Jacksonville, Fla.

Don’t worry – my fourth annual NFL owner rankings are only a few months away.


“Mild correction to your API article: Josh Freeman went to Kansas State, not Kansas. Big difference out here on the plains.”

Mike
Lawrence, Kan.

As Bill Walton would say, “That’s horrrrrrrrible.” You know, Walton, the former USC center …


“HA! ‘Cats go through to the next round and Cal is out! ;-) ”

Srini
Chennai, India

Nice – Mike Montgomery’s Bears swept a team that made the Sweet 16.


“If, The leagues does put more game. That would give Micheal Vick, an good chance to get back in the NFL. I mean i am sure someone would get him back in the game, to do an two man rotation. What your opinion on that?”

Timothy Skaggs
Dayton, Ohio

Sorry – my head is spinning too rapidly to come up with one.