Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff went against conventional NFL wisdom on draft day in 2011.
The Falcons needed some obvious pieces to continue to grow after they were routed by the Green Bay Packers 48-21 in the playoffs.
But that didn’t stop Dimitroff from pulling the trigger on a shocking trade for the sixth pick in the draft. They Falcons sent a king’s ransom — five draft picks — to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up 21 spots and draft wide receiver Julio Jones.
Fast forward two seasons, the trade has paid major dividends and has the Falcons (14-3) set to play the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at 3 p.m. Sunday in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. The franchise, in a large part because of that trade, is on the brink of making its second trip to the Super Bowl.
The coupling of Jones with four-time Pro Bowler Roddy White and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez has turned the offense into a high-flying, high-scoring unit under the direction of fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The thinking after the Green Bay debacle was that the Falcons didn’t have the weapons to compete if they got into another shootout.
Now, the “Pick Your Poison” offense, is potent. The unit finished the regular season ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards (281.8), seventh in points (26.2) and eighth in total yards (369.1).
The key to the ascent was how White received Jones, the obvious and eventual heir apparent to his No. 1 receiver spot.
“We just truly believed that Roddy was the guy to be able to deal with that,” Dimitroff said. “Roddy is not a diva in any way. He’s a tough hombre. He’s a former wrestler. He’ll take on anyone. We love his approach. We love his levity.
“We love his competitiveness, and yet he and Julio have a relationship that I, at times, marvel at because these are two competitive guys and yet they pull for each other. They truly pull for each other.”
During the lockout of 2011, White showed up at the field at Buford High School to help Jones in the workouts that Ryan set up.
That was the start of the football relationship. The two, through trips to bowling alleys, parties to watch NBA games and NFL games, have developed a special bond.
“He’s been like a brother,” Jones said. “That bond has become so strong now that when we are on the field, I’m not going to let him down, and I know he’s not going to let me down. So, we go out there and play for each other.”
White, 32, in some ways, does look at Jones, 23, as his younger brother.
“That’s how you have to be when you are playing football,” White said. “This is like a family atmosphere. I try to figure out ways to get us together and spend as much time as possible, not even with football-related things.”
White had a bumpy start to his career after being drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft.
He was on the verge of being called a bust after he caught only 59 passes over two seasons. He then exploded for 83 catches, 1,202 yards and six touchdowns in the lost 2007 Vick/Petrino season.
“The hardest thing is coming into the NFL and having so much expected of you right off the bat,” White said. “He did a heck of a job. On a lockout season, he almost had 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. The speaks volumes about his talent and how good he is.”
The season, with a full offseason with wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, Jones continued to blossom. He caught 79 passes for 1,198 and 10 touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
White had 92 catches for 1,351 yards and for seven touchdowns and was elated that Jones made the Pro Bowl, while he did not.
“Julio is all business,” Fox NFL analyst Howie Long said. “Julio might as well be in a suit with a briefcase because he is all business. Roddy is a great compliment to him because he’s so tough, so physical and so animated.”
If the Falcons reach the Super Bowl, Jones and White figure to play a prominent role.
“They haven’t played two receivers like me and Roddy this year,” Jones said.
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