Before allowing visitors into his Chamber of Secrets, Thomas Dimitroff walked in, closed the door behind him, digitally whitewashed the walls of his office of all depth charts and player rankings, cleaned his desk, turned off his computer screen and flipped the two big screens to a Falcons’ screensaver and, I think, the Food Network.
It’s draft week. NFL general managers and coaches are even more paranoid than usual. The ratio of lies-to-information tilts drastically to the left, like something-to-zero.
“I’m surprised you’re even here,” Dimitroff said, turning to me at a news conference held earlier Thursday, and familiar with my musings over this traditional pre-draft information-blackout session.
The Falcons’ general manager must have been so conditioned to disseminating half-truths this time of year that when he recalled deciding to meet with a prospect a last-minute decision with coach Dan Quinn before the 2017 draft, Dimitroff said, “I remember jetting off to a couple of towns away, and I was sitting at a Waffle House, eating pancakes, literally ...”
At which point everybody in the room reminded Dimitroff that Waffle House doesn’t serve pancakes.
“I had pancakes,” Dimitroff insisted.
“No. You didn’t,” I said.
“Are we really talking about this? OK, I was at a Waffle House, I brought my own pancakes ...”
Quinn: “I don’t think you ate.”
Everybody laughed. Which is a good sign this week because in the old days most of the laughter didn’t break out until after the Falcons’ drafted. The jokes wrote themselves. Now, they are remarkably efficient, particularly since Quinn’s arrival in 2015.
In the past three years, the roster has been made over with draft picks Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal and Takk McKinley in the first round, Deion Jones in the second, Tevin Coleman and Duke Riley in the third, Justin Hardy and De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth and Grady Jarrett in the fifth. This follows getting Jake Matthews (first), Devonta Freeman (fourth) and Ricardo Allen (fifth) in 2014. Second-rounders Jalen Collins and Ra’Shede Hageman represent two of the few misses.
This represents a significant turnaround for the personnel department in general and Dimitroff in particular. He acknowledged Thursday on the “We Never Played The Game” podcast that he was nearly fired after consecutive losing seasons in 2013 and 2014, stemming in part from personnel decisions.
“Dan and I are in sync,” Dimitroff said on the podcast. “We’ve worked well together.”
“I think any GM is close to losing his job when you have two years basically of tough stuff, and I understand that, and with an owner like Arthur (Blank) who’s a hard-driving, high-expectation guy. It would’ve been easy for him to make a move.”
This isn’t overlooking some of the draft mistakes. But those who pushed for Dimitroff’s firing ignored two important things:
1) In 2008, the man assumed control of a franchise that never had consecutive winning seasons, promptly hit on a first-time head coach (Mike Smith) and built rosters that strung together five straight winning records and four playoff berths;
2) General managers generally make personnel decisions in concert with their coaches to fit their schemes. So Dimitroff deserved some blame for mistakes but not all. He also deserved the benefit of the doubt to fix the problems after what he had accomplished the first five seasons.
Now, there’s another lazy narrative: The Falcons are drafting well because Quinn is picking the players. It’s true Quinn has control of the final roster, and he probably possesses stronger personnel skills than any head coach in franchise history. But any suggestion Dimitroff and Quinn aren’t co-builders is inaccurate.
“Dan doesn’t just pick the players alone,” Dimitroff said on the podcast. “We’re partners in this 100 percent. People around the league know: There’s no czar in the building. We are a highly collaborative group. It’s not about one person making calls.”
In addition to computers and big screens, Dimitroff’s office includes a few unusual items to help him slip into his zen zone this time of season:
• A stationary bike to work out while watching tape and train for an upcoming benefit race (he’s an avid cyclist).
• A white-noise machine because he says it helps him focus. It also drowns out the voices of team president Rich McKay and financial officer Greg Beadles, who have neighboring offices.
• A blood-pressure machine, because, “Sometimes I get really amped up, I want to see how I’m doing.”
This Falcons’ draft is difficult to predict. They pick late (26th in the first round) and they could use help at several positions. But defensive tackle is the No. 1 need. Dimitroff and Quinn have taken several trips, thanks to Blank’s private plane, to meet with players (as recently as Wednesday in Florida).
The two have also done “eight to 10” mock drafts, or scenarios, to project who will be there for the Falcons’ first two picks. Both are typically guarded, not just with media but other GMs and coaches.
From Quinn: “There’s friends that call you and you’re like, ‘I can’t wait, I haven’t talked to you in so long.’ And there’s other friends who are like, ‘Yeah, what do you need?’ ... (Or), ‘Maybe we can catch up after the draft.’”
They’ve worked well together. The Falcons have made the playoffs in six of Dimitroff’s 10 seasons (60 percent). They made the playoffs eight of 43 years (18.6 percent) before his arrival.
The son of a former coach and long-time scout, the former kid who cut grass and lined the field as a member of the Cleveland Browns’ groundscrew, has done well. No more job worries. No more jokes.
Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast show page at AJC.com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes or, Google play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or listen from the AJC sports podcasts page or the WSB Radio on-demand page.
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