To this day Thomas Dimitroff is asked what was the main thing he cultivated while working under Bill Belichick.
The 47-year-old general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, who spent many of his formative years growing up in Canada, served six years in New England’s scouting department learning from one of the greatest minds in NFL history. He refers to it as “the Patriot paradigm” and he still believes there are few organizations and cultures similar to New England.
“One of the main ideas and philosophies was the idea of indisputable role understanding,” Dimitroff says. “Making sure that we stayed within those definitive lines and that we would all succeed at being the best in the league at those roles. That’s what was going to make us the best team we could be and win Super Bowl after Super Bowl after Super Bowl.”
Belichick never claimed that it was an unbelievable, outside-the-box strategy. You were just expected to adhere to the team concept in all aspects of the organization. Although, that doesn’t mean Belichick wasn’t or isn’t innovative. And it doesn’t mean that Dimitroff is afraid to go out on his own limb. In fact, in building the Falcons into a championship contender—2013’s struggles notwithstanding—one of the best moves he made was going against his mentor’s advice.
Dimitroff was tabbed for the Falcons job shortly after the finish of 2007 season. Atlanta had just been through one of the toughest seasons a franchise could ever imagine—they finished 4-12 in fourth place in the NFC South—and, after a four-hour Skype call with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Dimitroff was selected as the man to guide Atlanta back to respectability.
In his first draft for the team Dimitroff had the third pick and a lot at stake. But at least he had a fine example to draw on. The way Belichick manipulated the draft over the years had always amazed him.
“For a guy who is perceived as very strict and very rigid about what he does, he’s got a very creative mind and adaptable approach to things,” Dimitroff says. “His ability to get on the phone and cajole a GM or head coach from another team to trade away picks is second to none in our league.”
But in the 2008 draft his intention wasn’t to get creative. It was to acquire a building block. With rumours swirling about other teams trying to move in front of Atlanta to select Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, and the media and public championing LSU defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey over Ryan, Dimitroff and his staff held their ground.
“Nothing against Glenn Dorsey, but that would have been catastrophic for our organization, not having a player of Matt Ryan’s calibre at the quarterback position,” Dimitroff says
The trio of Dimitroff, Ryan and head coach Mike Smith quickly turned the Falcons into a title contender. In 2010 Atlanta rolled through the regular season, recording a 13-3 mark and a first-place finish in the NFC. But the Falcons got beat 48–21 on their home turf in the divisional round by the eventual champion Green Bay Packers. And it led to Dimitroff making an unprecedented move in the off-season.
As the 2011 draft approached, Dimitroff set his sights on landing All-American University of Alabama receiver Julio Jones. There was no chance Jones was going to be available with Atlanta’s 27th overall pick, so Dimitroff got on the phone with teams in the top seven of the draft.
“Some of the other organizations I had discussions with didn’t really believe that I was serious about moving up 21 spots, an unprecedented move in modern-day history of drafts in the NFL,” Dimitroff says.
For about a month leading up to the draft Dimitroff and Cleveland GM Tom Heckert talked quite a bit about the Browns’ sixth-overall pick. And when there was a framework for the trade in place, Dimitroff sought the advice of his mentor.
“Here I am calling one of the most historic head coaches in the history of our league, talking to Bill Belichick and knowing he wouldn’t do it,” Dimitroff said. “Bill mentioned very candidly, this is one of those things in your career that there is the potential you will take a massive beating in the media… so just be ready. I listened to him, we had a great discussion, talked about other parts of the draft, but in the back of my mind I thought, ‘All due respect. Bill, I’m going to pull the trigger on this.’”
On the eve of the draft the deal was struck. But when Dimitroff woke up on the morning of the draft, rumours had the Patriots jumping up the board and snatching Jones for themselves. The Atlanta GM thought to himself, “Is this really going to fall through my finger tips?” Especially to Belichick, the man who had advised him against making the deal?
It all turned out in Atlanta’s favour. Jones was available at number six when the Browns went on the clock and the Falcons sent five picks total, two firsts, a second and two fourths to Cleveland in order to land the explosive pass catcher.
“We never looked at the acquisition of Julio Jones as the over-the-top element that was going to take us to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl,” Dimitroff explained. “My drive and our approach to bringing in a guy like Julio Jones was to get the most explosive playmaker we could on offence. To have defensive players and coordinators on their heels worrying about Julio Jones. Whether he caught four passes or 14 that was our drive to get a guy like Julio Jones.”
Bringing Jones to the Falcons was a symbol Dimitroff had fully developed his own clear football and organization-building philosophy. He had learned so much from Belichick and the Patriot way. Some ideas from his days in New England fit his personality and some didn’t. For example Atlanta has a much more open approach with the media than New England.
In 2012 Dimitroff’s philosophy had the Falcons positioned as a Super Bowl contender. Atlanta flew through the regular season, again posting a 13-3 record, and earned the number one seed in the NFC. On Jan. 20, the Falcons hosted the 49ers for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Both Ryan and Jones put up huge numbers, with the latter going for 11 catches and 184 yards and two touchdowns. But with less than 90 seconds left in the game, Atlanta had a fourth and four on the San Francisco 10-yard line, needing a conversion and touchdown to win. Mere yards from a trip to the Super Bowl, San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman broke up a Ryan pass intended for Roddy White, and the game was over.
Despite the tough loss, it appeared Atlanta was built to be a perennial NFL championship challenger for years to come. However, in a sudden turn of fortune few experts saw coming in 2013, the Falcons are now at the back of the NFL flock.
“It’s beyond perplexing for most of us in the organization. Every day that I wake up… we continue to be in contention for the first overall pick. I can’t believe I’m saying that,” Dimitroff says. “In professional football when you’re 13-3 and a matter of yards away from the Super Bowl, the hesitancy to change is beyond strong. People don’t want to change, but you have to be very open. It goes back to the adaptability of what Bill Belichick was and is.”
It is clear Dimitroff isn’t afraid to be inventive in his thinking. He is open to making whatever changes necessary to ensure Atlanta’s stay at the bottom of the standings is brief.
“I truly believe we will rectify this with a vengeance,” Dimitroff says. “This to me was an anomalous season for us. I don’t believe it needs to take us years to get back and be considered one of the elite teams in the National Football League.”