Falcons are flying high, but still below radar

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010

ATLANTA - Around the Atlanta Falcons' state-of-the-art, woodpaneled training complex, the primary architects of the franchise's recent renaissance are known by schoolboy nicknames - "T.D.", "Smitty," and "Matty Ice." The three share a disdain for egomaniacs, grim-faced leadership and a lack of preparation, and quite strategically pepper their long workdays with ready smiles, warm handshakes and open-door policies.

They have jointly led what has been a three-year transformation from disgraced franchise to model organization that, entering Sunday's meeting against the Carolina Panthers, boasts a 10-2 record, the best in the NFC.

"T.D." is Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons' 44-year-old general manager, a slim-waisted, mountain-biking maven who wanders through the team offices with tousled brown hair peeking out from under a Falcons visor. Dimitroff prefers workout clothes to dress shirts and ties and seems as delighted to discuss the recreational hiking and riding trail he personally helped dig - literally, with a shovel in his hands - around the training complex in the offseason as the team's rise from NFL doormat.

Within months of being lured out of the New England Patriots' college scouting office by Falcons owner Arthur Blank in January 2008, Dimitroff hired a virtually unknown defensive coordinator to be his coach - even Mike Smith's wife calls him "Smitty" - and with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft selected Boston College star quarterback Matt Ryan, known as "Matty Ice" since his high school days in Philadelphia.

And then the trio of rookies set out together to change the culture of what had been a historically weak franchise, applying principles popular in many businesses but uncommon in some corners of the tight-lipped, bolted-door, hyper-professional NFL. It's been a breathtaking adventure that resulted in three straight winning seasons beginning with a surprise playoff appearance in 2008. Before the trio's arrival, the Falcons hadn't posted a winning record in consecutive seasons in the team's 42-year history.

This season, after an injury-plagued 2009, the Falcons have been among the class of the NFC.

"We wanted to be a very communicative organization," Smith said. "If you don't have communication and interaction, you're destined not to have success."

Smith "is keeping it real, coaching hard, and also understanding that - and I really believe this - this also has to be an enjoyable journey to be productive," Dimitroff said.

Dimitroff admitted choosing Smith over a host of other qualified candidates as much for his personal-relations savvy as his football acumen, which by all accounts is razor-sharp, and Smith confessed that his first priority after signing his contract was to introduce himself to every single member of the team's staff. A few months later, he pulled Ryan into his expansive office overlooking the team's practice fields, sat him down in a cozy leather chair and told him: "You're going to be the starting quarterback, but you don't have to do anything different than you've done your entire athletic career - just like I'm not going to do anything different as a coach."

Ryan, who is 19-1 in home games and has thrown 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season, recalled the positive energy Smith brought to the squad in the summer of 2008, less than a year after a 4-12 debacle of a season in which then-Falcons quarterback Michael Vick had been sentenced to jail on animal cruelty charges, and Coach Bobby Petrino quit with three games remaining.

"It's been fun since I've been down here," Ryan said. "From the moment [Smith] stepped into the locker room. . . . it was positive, it was energetic, and we've tried to take advantage of that. . . . Everyone wants to win badly and it starts with him. His drive, his spirit, filter into the locker room. He has a great pulse on this team, and he's a great guy, too."

Smith's high energy has gotten the best of him a few times, and his players chuckle when reminded. He pulled up lame with a strained hamstring in the team's opener against Pittsburgh after sprinting toward a referee to call a late timeout. ("Smitty needs to do a little stretching before games," linebacker Curtis Lofton said with a grin. "His muscles are a little tight.") Last November, he was fined $15,000 after accosting former Falcon DeAngelo Hall on the Atlanta's sideline during a 31-17 victory over the Redskins after Hall had been flagged for a late hit on Ryan.

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