In 2008, his first season as general manager of the Falcons, Thomas Dimitroff was voted the Sporting News’ NFL Executive of the Year by his peers in the league. Last year, the Falcons finished with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. The Falcons look like a team on the rise under Dimitroff, who recently talked to Sporting News’ Dennis Dillon about how he and the team are evolving.
SN: As you watched the division rival Saints play their way to a Super Bowl championship last season, did you ever think to yourself, "Why not us?"
TD: Any time that you’re striving to get better and you see the improvement and the evolution of a young football team, you begin to think, "Hey, we can compete, and we can be a regular contender for the playoffs and more." That’s something that drives us every day in the building. It drives the players; it drives the coaches.
SN: After having back-to-back winning seasons for the first time, what’s the next rung on the ladder for the Falcons?
TD: The next rung on the ladder is to truly move toward being a perennial contender for the playoffs and to feel very confident going into each game that we can compete at all levels throughout the NFL. That’s very important. We have a number of sequential and rather private goals in our organization—we try not to talk about them publicly—but one generally speaking is to really, truly see that we are evolving into a team that is a perennial playoff contender.
SN: What is your comfort level with the direction the team?
TD: We are quite comfortable with the direction, the leadership, the enthusiasm. The focus on this team, to me, is very impressive. I know I speak for myself and coach (Mike) Smith.
SN: The team slogan for 2010 is "Rise Up." What does that mean?
TD: Again, it’s about taking it to another level and having the team believe in their abilities and believe that they have the ability and the confidence to rise up and compete at a high level.
SN: What is your evaluation of quarterback Matt Ryan after two seasons?
TD: Matt Ryan is developing very well in my mind. He has worked very hard in the offseason to study what he deems as his issues, whether it was his decision making at times, whether it was his footwork, or whatever it was. … Something you may have read recently, he studied a lot of the upper-echelon quarterbacks in this league and I think that was very beneficial for him as well.
SN: True or false: As Ryan goes, so go the Falcons?
TD: I am a firm believer, like a lot of people in this league, that you go as your quarterback goes. Not to put it all on one individual, because it is a team game, but it is very important for your quarterback to perform at a very high and consistent level to be successful in this league. If that answers your question, I guess you’d have to say true.
SN: In what ways are you a better G.M. today than you were a year ago?
TD: I believe I’m grasping more than just player personnel now. I’m beginning to learn some of the other aspects of this league, whether it is rules, compliance, player relations, contract negotiations, salary cap. There are a number of aspects that I wasn’t that fully immersed in as I have been of late. It’s been beneficial, and I feel like I’ve grown in those areas.
SN: Best lesson you learned in New England from Bill Belichick?
TD: The indisputable role understanding. It’s about the basic tenets of the team concept. Everybody do their job to the best of their ability; don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Make sure you’re focused on what your job is. If we all do that, we all have a chance to be successful. And I say that with fervor. I learned a great deal from him, and that was one thing that really sticks out in my mind.
SN: What’s the most difficult decision you have had to make as a G.M.?
TD: I would suggest the idea of acquiring free agents for substantial amounts of money and having to look the owner in the eye and say this is exactly the right move to make with tens of millions of dollars on the line. That’s probably the most challenging type of decision, because I really aim to be fiscally responsible with Arthur Blank’s money and the organization’s salary cap situation.
SN: You first interviewed for the job with Blank via web cam. Do you now hold discussions with him face to face?
TD: I’m not sure if our IT department has re-hooked Arthur to the web came since our interview. We have very regular and very communicative conversations. I enjoy our conversations at a league level as well as from his business perspective, which can be very insightful from his days as co-founder of H.D. (Home Depot). We have some great conversations as far as business approach and philosophy.
Dennis Dillon is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sporting News correspondent Geoff Mosher contributed to this story.