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Dimitroff's long journey has Falcons on the precipice


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Dimitroff's long journey has Falcons on the precipice

By Albert Breer NFL Network

Thomas Dimitroff doesn't drive a Volkswagen conversion van anymore, even if he is trying to convince his wife that there's a spot next to his garage in Buckhead (an affluent area of Atlanta) where one could go. Those days of cooking on the propane stove and sometimes even sleeping in the back of that old bus on scouting trips are gone now. Even if he got a new rig for old time's sake, it would only be used to take his young son camping.

But marks of the hours spent in that van are all over his Atlanta Falcons, as the GM’s rebuilding effort, performed in collaboration with coach Mike Smith and his energetic, inventive staff, builds to its apex.

If the Falcons can win on Sunday in Tampa, Atlanta will own the league's best record and be the first team to get to 10 wins (joined by the winner of Monday night's Jets-Patriots game). Yup, those Godforsaken times of former coach Bobby Petrino yelling "woo pig sooey" on his way out of town to coach the University of Arkansas seem like a century ago. This regime's ability to unify a fractured organization has made it so.

These days, there's no split. Every Falcon is headed in the same direction. And that's because, finally, after three years of drafting and working the roster, and developing players, a like-minded group has emerged.

That old bus died a sad death, its transmission shot, after being with Dimitroff for stints working as an area scout for the Lions, Browns and Patriots out of Boulder, Colo. But the GM still tries to beat the bushes for players in the same manner he learned back then, and that means getting to know the guys as people, which has led to Atlanta having a team full of his kinds of guys.

"That's something Smitty and I, guys like Les Snead, Lionel Vital, David Caldwell and the entire personnel staff are very proud of," Dimitroff said. "This organization spent a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of money trying to acquire system fits, and locker room fits. If you get them young, and you keep them in the system from Day 1, that can be incredibly beneficial. Then you add the right veteran players, that are open to change in technique to go to Smitty's system schematically.

"I feel like we have an impressive nucleus of players, and best of all, they have each others' backs. That's something we're very proud of, too. This team comes to work every day and they want to be at work. They're enjoying the journey."

When you're 9-2, that's easy. But it's when it wasn't so easy that Dimitroff and Co. saw that quality shine brightest. While Dimitroff comes from New England, a place where they live and breathe "one week at a time," he believes the team's three-game winning streak to close out last year at 9-7 had a carryover effect this year.

It proved the resolve of a young core headed by quarterback Matt Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the headliners in a star-studded 2008 draft class. And it also validated Dimitroff's approach as a young GM, which brings us back to that VW bus.

See, back when he was riding through the Rockies and the Pacific coast, he got the chance to know the players he was scouting, both athletically and from a personal standpoint. The experience was invaluable, and while he can't spend the time he used to, he still makes a point to get out to a couple campuses a week to scout, before diving in headlong in the spring.

Thanks to Falcons owner Arthur Blank's generosity, he can be more efficient now, riding in the owner's Leer jet, rather than on the freeway. But the idea hasn't changed.

"You don't want to bring in guys who don't fit," Dimitroff says. "I'm not talking about just the criminal aspect of it, but also having personalities here that believe in the tenets of our team concept. It's something I look for, and it's something Smitty feels very strongly about. When we came in here, coming off 2007 and all the tumultuous events, three years later having what we have here, we're happy.

"It's gotta be settling for Arthur. None of us in football are angels, a lot of guys have stuff in their background to get through, but that stuff hasn't caused major distractions."

So how has it manifested on the field? If the team avoids a turnover against the Buccaneers, they'll set a record for most consecutive games without one, at five. Part of that, Dimitroff believes, is good fortune, but a larger factor is the focus, drive and awareness of the players on the team.

The same things he saw in "opportunistic" players like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Kevin Faulk and Tom Brady in New England, Dimitroff says he's starting to see in defensive guys like Lofton, Sean Weatherspoon, Mike Peterson, William Moore and Jonathan Babineaux. Just as significant, the timing between Ryan and weapons like Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Tony Gonzalez has hit a new level.

All that came together three weeks ago against the Ravens, and the example was reinforced with another last-minute win against an elite opponent (Green Bay) Sunday.

"(Baltimore) was the monumental game for us," Dimitroff said. "What happened there, when we were in those spots against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh earlier in the season, we didn't rise to the level we expected. Coming out that many games later and hitting more consistently, we left that game with a confidence we've carried the last two games. Facing the Packers, I felt markedly different than I did against Baltimore.

"Before, I was waiting to see how we'd do against a top team. I had a different feeling against Green Bay. I had confidence in that team. I wasn't relaxed, but I had more assurance in this team, more settled nerves. We're not the youngest team in the league anymore, but we're still young at a lot of positions and these are big games. Just like we went through it earlier, we've been in so many battles now and that should pay dividends down the stretch."

By the end of the conversation, Dimitroff was just finishing the drive from Phoenix to Tucson to scout the annual Territorial Cup game between Arizona and Arizona State. He wasn't driving a VW. But he might as well have been.

Those days are, in a way, representative of these days, and these days are pretty good.

"We're where we wanted to be," said Dimitroff. "Last year was a disappointment. We got back-to-back winning seasons and that was important for our owner and our fan base, but speaking for myself and Smitty, we were agitated. This year, we're pleased with the progress. Last week was another step."

Dimitroff stopped short of saying he and his group have arrived in any way, instead pointing out that he'd like to see the team do a better job coming out of halftime and achieve more consistency overall.

But after a pleasant surprise of a 2008 season, and a disappointing year in 2009, the GM knows enough to enjoy the journey in 2010. And that's in large part because, for Dimitroff, that journey started a long time ago, on some pretty interesting wheels, and still is a long way from its end.

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I am glad that we have a GM and Head Coach that are never satisfied. Smitty may never be the coaching genius Belichick is in NE but he definitely knows how to get the most out of his players

If Smitty would tape the other teams practice it would help his rep......untill he got caught............and if you think Belichick didn't use those tapes or that it only happened once I have a bridge I'd like to sale you


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Nice job, thanks for posting.

TD is a real unique guy---I think he is close to being a eccentric genius--I know very little about him other than he worked for Belichick, is a health and exercise fanatic, and I guess drove a VW bus?

I really respect him and glad he is on our side.

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