We stipulate by saying this is way, way premature. Under Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, the Falcons haven’t yet won a division title, let alone 14 in succession. That said …
Those of us who were here in 1990 and 1991 can recognize some of the characteristics and more than a hint of the same overall feeling. The Braves were terrible. Then they hired John Schuerholz from Kansas City to be general manager and left Bobby Cox, who’d been the GM, in the dugout. And they finished first over each of the next 14 completed seasons, a run unprecedented and apt to be unmatched in North American professional sports.
The Falcons were terrible. Then they hired Thomas Dimitroff as GM on the strength of a webcam interview, and he hired Mike Smith as coach on the strength of long discussions at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The Falcons were 11-5 last season and are 2-0 now.
The question, then: Have the Falcons found their Cox and Schuerholz?
The early answer: Maybe.
• Schuerholz started as an English teacher and wound up in the Baltimore front office at a time when Baltimore was the place to be. Dimitroff started as a scout and wound up in the New England organization when New England was becoming the gold standard of professional football.
• Cox is a pure baseball man who has never seemed comfortable in a press conference setting. He’s better one-on-one. Smith is a pure football man of whom the exact same things can be said.
• Schuerholz once taught vocabulary. Dimitroff keeps a dictionary by his desk.
• Cox looks out of place in anything except a uniform. Smith seems out of place anywhere but on a football field.
• Schuerholz was the architect of the Braves’ breakthrough, signing Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and Otis Nixon soon after he arrived. Dimitroff is the architect of the Falcons’ restoration, signing Michael Turner and drafting Matt Ryan.
• Cox was the implementer of the Braves’ run of excellence, juggling egos and handling a star-spangled pitching staff. Smith is the implementer of the Falcons’ rise, helping cobble together a defense and setting the tone in practice every day.
• Cox and Schuerholz would talk nearly every day, even in the offseason, and they rarely disagreed. Smith and Dimitroff are, to use Dimitroff’s description, “sympatico” on all matters regarding football.
Before the Braves found their winning tandem, they’d managed one division title in two decades (and no playoff victories since moving to Atlanta) and had become a civic punchline. The Falcons, as we know, haven’t yet had consecutive winning seasons, and in 2007 — the year Michael Vick went to jail and Bobby Petrino split for the Ozarks — had fallen into an abyss as deep as any in the history of local sports. But surpassing competence rescued the Braves, and it seems to be doing the same for the Birds.
And in each case there’s a symbiosis. Cox needed Schuerholz to find the right players, and Schuerholz needed Cox to put the players in the right spot. Smith wouldn’t have been the NFL’s 2008 coach of the year without Matt Ryan, but Dimitroff wouldn’t have been the 2008 executive of the year had his coach not had the guts to deploy a rookie quarterback.
In each case, the two were dissimilar: Where Schuerholz favored suspenders, Cox loves his Adairsville farm; where Dimitroff is a vegetarian and a bicyclist, Smitty is meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. But in each case the dissimilarities seemed complementary. The differences actually became strengths.
It took a seamless — a Schuerholz word — partnership to lift the Braves to the top and keep them there. Relative to the longstanding Braves’ pairing, the Falcons’ is in its infancy. But this much we can say already: No seams have been seen yet, and it figures to be a good long while before any start to show.