Thomas Dimitroff was calling from a car parked outside Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, site of this weekend’s East-West Shrine Game. He was about to watch a practice, and he was looking forward, as scouts say, to “sniffing the pits.” Once a scout, always a scout.
But there’s a philosopher inside the Falcons’ general manager as well, and before he got around to discussing where his team is headed he recalled where it had been. Dimitroff arrived in January 2008 with franchise fortunes at an all-time nadir. “There was definitely uncertainty,” he said, understating, and then the 2008 Birds unaccountably began to win.
Continuing the narrative: “Along the way we had an evolving confidence. It wasn’t a swagger yet. And this year there was a lot of optimism and legitimate expectation, but inconsistency tugged at our success.”
Note the “in-” word Dimitroff deployed — not “injuries” but “inconsistency.” The 2009 Falcons were unlucky in that so many of them got hurt, but the greater issue, at least to TD the GM, was that those who were healthy enough to play didn’t play to the same level every time out.
The season’s watchwords were “urgency” and “consistency.” Consider half the battle won. Said Dimitroff: “We felt we achieved the urgency; we were definitely faster on the defensive side. What stood out most was the consistency — that was most unsettling to me.
“Consistency is one of my crosses. I know nothing is going to be perfect, and there’s no question injuries play into inconsistency. But I want to stress we’re not a team of excuses.”
Many people, some of whom work at 4400 Falcon Parkway in Flowery Branch, got giddy over the breaking of the no-consecutive-winning-seasons drought. Dimitroff wasn’t among them. “Having a winning season was big for our organization and our city,” he said, “but it wasn’t necessarily our goal.”
Remember: He came from New England, where winning seasons are expected and anything short of the playoffs is a failure. As he watches the postseason unfold on TV, “I get agitated by the fact we weren’t in the tournament. There’s no question it’s an empty feeling.”
Toward that end: One round of pit-sniffing in Orlando and another at the Senior Bowl in Mobile next work. Then 2 1/2 more months of due diligence regarding free agency and the draft. Regarding the latter, the belief in this space is that the Falcons will take some sort of edge player — not to say, “edgy player,” though they’d like that, too — in Round 1, be he an outside linebacker or a defensive end.
The question, though: Can you land a big-time pass rusher with the 19th (or 20th, depending on a coin flip with Houston) pick? Dimitroff: “I believe you can, yes. You can even get them in Round 2 or Round 3 if it’s somebody who has been passed over because of a shortcoming. A pass rusher doesn’t have to be 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds to have an effect.”
An example: The 2008 NFL defensive player of the year was James Harrison of the Steelers. He’s an outside linebacker who stands 6-foot and weighs 242 pounds. He wasn’t drafted in any round.
Asked about Lawrence Sidbury, the fourth-round defensive end who just completed his rookie season, Dimitroff said: “I think he has a future. I see him being a nice rotational pass rusher. The ball’s in his court as to whether he can take it to the next level.
And now you’re asking: What about cornerbacks? Is Dimitroff going to draft one, two, three of those? The guess: Maybe one, maybe high, but not a slew. Because this GM isn’t ready to write off Chris Houston and Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens, no matter how overmatched they might have appeared. Dimitroff on his cornerbacks: “I see some very good fast athletes who are still growing.”
Two moves to note: Emmitt Thomas wasn’t retained as the Falcons’ secondary coach, and Ron Medlin was let go after 16 seasons as trainer. Under Dimitroff and Mike Smith, the Falcons don’t operate on whims. If two longtime employees are no longer with the organization, there’s a reason.
Under Dimitroff and Smith, the Falcons aren’t satisfied with coming close. “Going forward, the overriding element is to seriously reflect on what went awry and what needs to be tweaked, and we’re talking about minor tweaks.”
Maybe the tweaking is a matter of coaching the defensive backs differently. Maybe it’s an upgrade in strength and fitness and nutrition. Whatever the case, TD the GM is on it.
“There’s a drive,” Dimitroff said, “to prove we are legitimate playoff contenders.” And nothing less.