This isn’t the first time Dimitroff has had to deal with losing. He worked in Cleveland and Detroit before ascending to the Roman Empire in New England. But that was different. He was a mere staff member in those stops. This is the first time he has had to deal with severe defeat as a decision-maker, which means it’s the first time he is publicly being questioned.
“Yes. And my goal is to rectify with a vengeance,” he said.
He actually said that twice. It might be T-shirt worthy for training camp.
I’ve had several conversations, emails and text exchanges with Dimitroff in six-plus years, long and short. There was an edge to his comments and tone this week that wasn’t always present. Anybody who believes he is writing off the 2013 season as some aberration would be mistaken.
This isn’t to suggest the man is burning his blueprint, dismissing all of his previous mantras and beliefs. But a general manager doesn’t somewhat overhaul his staff unless he is taking failure seriously.
Since the end of last season, Dimitroff has hired two former general managers, Scott Pioli and Billy Devaney. He also hired long-time NFL scout Russ Bolinger. That’s three new high-profile voices in the room.
In addition, there have been changes on Mike Smith’s coaching staff. Three offensive and defensive line coaches are out. Offensive line coach Mike Tice (a former head coach with Minnesota) and defensive line coach Bryan Cox are in.
“When you’re 13-3, the natural tendency is to not change significantly,” Dimitroff said. “When you’re 4-12, I’ve referred to it as ‘productive vulnerability.’ It’s when you look at things with a much more critical eye than you would have after a 13-3 season. We scrutinized the entire football operations, more than we ever have since we’ve been here.”
I mentioned to Dimitroff that some critics wondered if his ego prevented him from seeking stronger outside voices before. He laughed.
“So what does that mean? Before they felt like I was skipping along, and now after 4-12 I thought I needed help? No. This isn’t about me or my ego. This was about how we needed to get better, rugged, grittier.”
Front-office and coaching moves alone won’t fix the problems. The Falcons had deficiencies on both lines last season, and if social media and sports talk radio are accurate barometers — I know, risky — it doesn’t seem the majority of a fickle fan base is giving Dimitroff the benefit of the doubt with his moves in free agency.
It’s strange. But despite five good seasons — albeit little postseason success — the man isn’t being given the benefit of the doubt after one bad one. The “jolt” of last season has left a hangover.
“We put a lot of effort into last season, and unfortunately things didn’t go our way,” he said.
The Falcons were bad last season, but their roster wasn’t 4-12 bad. They were good in 2012. But their roster also probably wasn’t 13-3 good. They haven’t been a tough, physical team for a long time. They’ve lacked an edge. Teams with those traits are the ones that win in December and January.
Dimitroff has been busy in free agency, even if none of the decisions have been worthy of screaming headlines. The objective: fill needs. Right guard Jon Asamoah should fix at least some of the problems on the offensive line. Nose tackle Paul Soliai should help the run defense. Signing 3-4 defensive end Tyson Jackson was a little bit of a head scratcher, but it gave credence to speculation that the team will play more 3-4 in 2014, hoping a pass rush can be created by outside linebackers.
Also signed was 31-year-old returner Devin Hester. Hester obviously doesn’t possess the speed he did early in his career, and NFL rule changes have minimized the effectiveness of returners. But Dimitroff believes Hester can improve a team weakness.
Several holes remain. The defense needs a pass rusher and a safety. The offense needs a tackle and maybe a tight end. This draft can say as much about the Falcons’ future as Dimitroff’s, in part because the team picks sixth. Impact players are needed. (Before you ask: Expect Jadeveon Clowney to go in the first two picks. Dimitroff isn’t saying whether he would trade up that high to get him, but I’m doubting it.)
Dimitroff has done a lot since 2008. But he works for a demanding owner in a demanding sports world. To suggest his job is on the line next season might be an overstatement, unless the bottom falls out. But Dimitroff’s approach is the same as it was when he was hired.
“As a general manager in the NFL, your job is always on the line,” he said.
There is no reason to grade his offseason now. The games will do that.