HOUSTON – The Atlanta Falcons have an atypical arrangement at the top of their football operation. Apparently, it works.
How is the question.
How, in a cutthroat league with too many outsized egos jostling for control, did the Falcons know that stripping final-say power from their experienced general manager and giving it to their new, unproven head coach would work so well so quickly?
Communication, humility and two-way understanding that two heads are better than one, just so long as the head with final say doesn’t get too big.
“If you’re at odds or loggerheads on a certain player, it’s not productive to proceed with that player unless the coach and the general manager can’t come to a decision,” said Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose team will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Sunday. “When you start having those disagreements and someone slaps down a contract on the table and claims to have final say on the 53-man roster, I think you’re well on your way to having massive issues within an organization. So we haven’t done that here.”
It’s common sense. But not always common practice in the NFL.
In 2006, coach Marty Schottenheimer and General Manager A.J. Smith built the San Diego Chargers into a league-best 14-2 team. They lost to the Patriots in the playoffs. Schottenheimer was fired a month later because he and Smith had overdeveloped egos that couldn’t coexist any longer.
Things can change quickly in this business, but right now neither Dimitroff nor Falcons coach Dan Quinn appear to be in any danger of butting egos. Quinn oozes positivity and declared this week that his goal was to have the best coach-general manager relationship in all of sports. Meanwhile, Dimitroff already proved his unusual humility by accepting less power once he got to know Quinn during the hiring process in 2015.
Dimitroff had been the Falcons’ general manager since 2008. Most guys in that situation would have balked and been fired.
“Dan, No. 1, is so authentic,” Dimitroff said. “He’s very communicative and open. We talk 10 times a day, and there’s no defensiveness between us. He’s passionate and very competitive, but he controls it in the right way and knows there’s a time and place for that personality to come out.”
Of the 53 players on Atlanta’s current roster, 36 (67.9 percent) have been added since Quinn came aboard in 2015. That includes 12 starters, seven of which came through the draft, four through free agency and one via trade.
After starting 5-0 and finishing 8-8 in 2015 (sound familiar?), the Falcons added 22 new players. They found starters with their first four draft picks and two via free agency.
Suddenly, perceptions have been changed. Quinn, 46, is a rising star coaching in his third Super Bowl in four seasons after two as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. And Dimitroff, 50, went from hot seat to three-year contract extension this past fall.
And now Dimitroff is at the Super Bowl fielding questions about being smarter than his old mentor, Bill Belichick, when it came to the blockbuster trade for Julio Jones on draft day in 2011.
Belichick advised Dimitroff that he was giving up too much in the trade with Cleveland. But Dimitroff went ahead and gave the Browns five picks, including two first-rounders, to move up 21 spots in the first round.
“When I called Bill, I knew it was going to be a big move, a monumental move, and potentially a historical move that could end up not being a real fan favorite,” Dimitroff said. “Bill was thinking about my best interests and telling me that it was going to be one of those things that will be with me for the rest of my career.
“He’s always offered very good advice. He’s a very knowledgeable guy in many ways. But one thing I’ve said is as team builders, we know our teams better than anybody else. He’s one of the best ever to not only coach, but to build a team, but a lot of people don’t know the ins and outs and intricacies of what our team build is and what our future is. I take what he says seriously, but also knowing where we were, it was the right thing for our organization at the time.”
Sunday, Belichick will have his hands full trying to contain Jones and Dimitroff’s other signature move — taking quarterback and presumed league MVP Matt Ryan with his first draft pick as general manager back in 2008.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @MarkCraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org