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Falcons ‘ace’ GM faces tougher Round 2

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(sorry if already posted)

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.

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