In the past two weeks, the Falcons have politely folded up Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Michael Boley and Domonique Foxworth and left them on the front porch like used sweaters for the Salvation Army.
That’s the thing about having one great season: Nobody is going to say general manager Thomas Dimitroff has goofed because his transcripts are still Harvard-grade. His team just orchestrated one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history. His benefit of the doubt isn’t anywhere close to expiring.
But at the very least, Dimitroff is playing a dangerous game.
Locker-room chemistry and leadership are important commodities in any sport but particularly the NFL, where a hard salary cap limits depth and the number of veterans a team can carry. Say what you want about how little we expected from the Falcons last season, even after Dimitroff’s first veteran bloodletting (Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman, et. al): Keeping Milloy and Brooking at least ensured some veteran stability on the defensive side of the ball.
But look at what this latest sweep has created. Five defensive regulars are gone, and the one returning starter whom everybody suddenly seems to be counting on to lead the masses is linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Kind of seems like a lot to put on a 22-year-old coming off his rookie season, doesn’t it?
“I texted Curtis and told him he’s the guy on defense now,” Brooking said Wednesday during a farewell news conference at owner Arthur Blank’s home office.
Dimitroff will rely heavily on the draft. That tends to be the smart course of action in the NFL. Owners who operate their team like they’re in a fantasy league tend to implode. (Unfortunately, Brooking just signed with one of them: Dallas.) But Dimitroff also must know that New England, the model organization he came from, makes a point annually to dot its roster with veterans.
A lot of things went right for the Falcons last season. Logic dictates they aren’t likely to live such a charmed existence next season. Matt Ryan threw a touchdown pass on the first play of 2008. That set the tone for what became four months of nirvana.
But often after such magical seasons, reality sets in. Schedules get more difficult. Opponents approach you differently. Game plans spontaneously combust.
Ask New Orleans. Ask Seattle. Ask, well, the Falcons.
Individually, losing Brooking, Milloy, Jackson, Boley or Foxworth probably isn’t that big of a deal. Collectively, they leave a black hole. Dimitroff is counting on too many things going right. John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux are nice players. But guys who will jump on a table and take charge if things start to go south? Not likely.
Brooking acknowledges the obvious: He’s not the same player physically he was as a rookie in 1998. But he said he still brings the Cowboys “the ability to be a leader by example, vocally if I have to. I can pull the young guys to the side and teach them what it takes to be successful in the NFL.”
He called the Falcons’ decision to part with five veterans “significant.” But he believes in Lofton and in the leadership of coach Mike Smith
Maybe he really believes they’ll be OK. Then again, it’s not exactly in his nature to publicly second-guess anybody, particularly an organization whose owner just hosted his goodbye press conference
But come September, a number of guys in the Falcons’ locker room are going to be looking at each other, waiting to see who jumps on a table — and a few of the candidates were left on the porch.