FLOWERY BRANCH — A few months after he left New England to take a job with the Falcons — who were less an NFL franchise at the time than they were a series of spontaneous lab explosions — Thomas Dimitroff received a package in the mail. It seems the Patriots had shipped him a belated going-away present, something Dimitroff embraced even more than a bottle of ibuprofen.
“I went to the Super Bowl that year and I was still kind of carrying the Patriots in my pocket at the time, hoping they would win,” the Falcons’ general manager said. “One day, I get an AFC Championship ring in the mail. They didn’t have to do that. I had left them. But it speaks to the class of that organization.”
Dimitroff has three rings (two Super Bowl, one AFC title) from his days in the Patriots’ personnel department. He’s working on his first with the Falcons but it’s kind of early. A roster makeover and the hiring of coach Mike Smith orchestrated last year’s unlikely 11-5 season and run to the playoffs.
And how strange is this? As the Falcons prepare for their game at New England this week, they are 2-0 and viewed as the young NFL team on the rise, while the Patriots are 1-1 (and fortunate to not be 0-2) and being beat up by fans and media for mediocrity on the defensive side of the ball and the relatively pedestrian play of Tom Brady. New England won its opener only because a Buffalo player fumbled a kickoff that he didn’t have to return (leading to a Patriots touchdown). They lost Sunday to the New York Jets, after which coach Bill Belichick admitted several times he was “outcoached.”
We should insert here that these aren’t Dimitroff’s observations. He takes nothing negative from the Patriots’ start. “They’re the last team that you should ever count out,” he said.
Nonetheless, there is some irony.
Even with losing rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry for the season, people are jumping on the Falcons’ bandwagon and off the Patriots’. Matt Ryan’s quarterback rating of 108.5 ranks third in the league. Brady’s 76.8 ranks 22nd. Then again, he also has three Super Bowl rings. We’re five seasons removed from the last one but only two years removed from the undefeated regular season that ended in a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. So it’s probably a bit premature to project the living room is about to collapse into the basement.
This game means something a little extra to Dimitroff, but not in any grudge sense. He left on great terms. (Why else would Kraft mail an ex-employee a $15,000 ring?) Personnel chief Scott Pioli (now with Kansas City) was his mentor and close friend. Belichick made every draft pick look good. Kraft was generous. That’s why when Falcons owner Arthur Blank hired him, Dimitroff promised himself he would not try to take anybody from the Patriots with him.
“I was very mindful when I left the Patriots of not going against the grain, jumping into their roster or their personnel department, talking to coaches or adminstration people and saying, ‘Hey, come with me,’” he said. “That was out of respect for Bill and Scott and ultimately the Krafts. It was more like, ‘OK, I learned a lot. Let’s go down there and set up shop. Let’s take the principles I’ve learned there, but not the bodies and the minds.”
He would like to have seen Pioli this weeks, but points out, “If he wasn’t with the Chiefs, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the [Tony] Gonzalez deal done.”
He still refers to the Patriots as the “blueprint franchise.” He still has friends there. But, “I won’t be going up and down their sideline, high-fiving people. I’m mindful of what’s understood there. Your side of the field is your side of the field.”
Not a problem. The Falcons’ side might be the better place to be right now.