Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff (right) congratulates head coach Dan Quinn on a 40-14 victory over the Cardinals in mid-December.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

In time of Falcons upheaval, Thomas Dimitroff remains a constant

One, his team played in, and lost after squandering a big lead like a reckless lottery winner.

Another was back in 2011 in Dallas, when Green Bay – which had eliminated the 13-3 Falcons in the playoffs – beat Pittsburgh. Dimitroff just went for the experience. Bought his own ticket and everything – and let the record show that even a highly paid NFL executive thought the price steep.

“Very difficult,” was his description of that abbreviated evening. 

“I was straddling the 50-yard line; I somehow got one of the best seats in the house,” he continued. “Sat there for a quarter between two very good friends. I got up and walked out – it was a complicated thing to be sitting there. I thought (beforehand), OK, I can deal with that because I love football. But it was a really difficult thing.”

Likely sitting in Arthur Blank’s box for this coming Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Dimitroff won’t find his third trip to the big game a whole lot more comfortable. The boss had hoped to be more than the landlord for this game. High expectations for the Falcons playing in a hometown Super Bowl hit the potholes of too many injuries and too many mistakes, flipped several times, caught fire, but at least landed back upright at the 7-9 finish. 

Wisely, Dimitroff, 52, does not expect to walk out early on this Super Bowl while in the company of Falcons ownership.   

“I think I’ve matured some since 2011,” he said.

You tend to lose track of just how much a fixture Dimitroff has become around here. A person puts together a daring draft-day trade for a Hall of Fame receiver. He posts some first-round picks that range from Matt Ryan to Peria Jerry (don’t ask). Plays the kind of free-agent roulette that results in the extremes of Alex Mack and Ray Edwards. Has his own position lessened in the wake of a couple of losing seasons – Dimitroff now refers to himself and coach Dan Quinn as “co-team-builders.” And before you know it, 11 seasons have passed.

Both the Braves and Hawks have had four GMs since 2008, when Dimitroff ascended to the Falcons’ front office.

His trademark very alert hair betrays the passage of time.

“A hell of a lot more gray today than back in ’08. I looked at a picture someone sent me the other day and thought, wow,” Dimitroff said. 

At least the hair has remained full, when Dimitroff wouldn’t have been blamed for pulling out handfuls of it each time a significant Falcons defender went down this season.

“That was the most frustrating year I ever had per injuries,” he said. “I’ve never seen it that drastic. I look at the people who were injured (such as linebacker Deion Jones, safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, running back Devonta Freeman). They were not only adept at what they do on the field but also were also really important leaders for us.”

What followed was the disappointing revelation that his and Quinn’s roster – a roster ranked in the top two in the league the past two seasons by Pro Football Focus – contained insufficient depth to mask those losses. 

What lies ahead is a busy period of redecorating said roster – “I think (the changes) will be significant,” the GM said – against a backdrop of some pressing salary-cap challenges.

There’s re-signing receiver Julio Jones to a very big number. “We’ll take care of that business. It will get done, I don’t know exactly when. I’m not concerned about that,” Dimitroff said.

Defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, the Falcons’ most consistent defender, is in line for a big raise and as such represents a big decision.

“Of course,” Dimitroff said, “we’d like to have Grady back for many years to come, not only for what he does on the field but what he does off the field for us. I’m confident with it.”

And while you’re at it, bolster that offensive line.

The bigger picture is this, he said: “We have to be very mindful of the financial situation when you have a quarterback and receiver where they are in the scope of everything and other players we have signed to big contracts – i.e. a left tackle (Jake Matthews) and a running back (Freeman). We’re going to have to be very decisive and be creative in how we pull that all together. That may mean some significant moves.”

And the formula at work here isn’t as easy as money equals success. It’s worth noting that none of the six highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL – Ryan is second on that list – are in the postseason.  

“An article that came out recently claimed that the better way to go about it is to actually release your quarterback before you sign him to a big number,” Dimitroff said. “All due respect to who wrote it, that’s not how we would look at that as co-team builders. You need the most adept quarterback that you can have and you need to make sure you build around him. It’s expensive of course, that forces us to be very creative in how we put it together. But I would never approach it in any other way, wish for a younger guy who is less expensive. We love Matt Ryan and what he can do. He’s the guy who’s going to get us to the Super Bowl (again) – an extremely important part.”

With that in mind, just how much does the calendar inside Dimitroff’s head sound warnings, knowing that Ryan turns 34 in May and Jones crosses over into 30 in a month. When you have mortgaged so much for the skill side, you best make something grand of it while you can. That great sporting culture, old Rome, had a phrase for the fleeting nature of glory: “Sic transit gloria mundi.” Might the GM start hearing that in his ear?   

“Arthur, Dan and myself are all very much realists and we understand that there is a time frame,” he said. “I don’t believe the time frame was just this year or last year at all. I think we have a lot of very good football players who have a lot of gas left in the tank. We have to capitalize and win the opportunities that are presented us. And we need to do it now. And we’d love to do it for years to come.”

As the Falcons began the season’s second half with a five-game losing streak, fans began planning on the consolation prize of a high draft pick in 2019. At one point, the team was playing down to top 5-pick projections. Then it went and won the last three, and fell to No. 14. (They’re still picking ahead of the Browns, and when is that ever a good sign?) 

From a general manager’s perspective, were those three wins at the end, where no real hope of the postseason lived, worth sacrificing eight or nine spots in the first round? 

“No question about it,” Dimitroff said. “In the end, we’re a very competitive football team. Dan oozes with competitiveness, our team does. They played strong down the stretch, meaning that no one pulled up their tents and left. They were driving to be a 7-9 team. As disappointing as that may sound, for us, for morale going forward, for the acceptance within our organization, 7-9 at that point was what we needed. It wasn’t about having a better draft pick.”

And at season’s close, the Falcons blew out all three coordinators – offense, defense and special teams – a purge the way the Russians used to do it. Beyond middle management, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and Dimitroff realizes it does flow upward.

Said Dimitroff, “I think the upcoming season is going to be, in my mind, a very important and focused season for myself and Dan as we head into it. We need to make sure we’re very acutely focused on what needs to be adjusted. And we started off with some very strong adjustments with the coaching changes.”

“We believe strongly in the talent that we have here. We believe strongly in the people we have within the organization,” he says. “I say this humbly but I say it confidently: This is a very well thought-out organization.” 

All that being said, the job ahead really comes down to but one simple imperative for the co-team builder. 

Just fix it.

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