Falcons are flying high, but still below radar

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; D04

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.

"A lot of coaches in the league say they got your back," Lofton said. "When it comes down to it, some don't.

"With Coach Smitty, when he says he got your back, he means it."

Smith doesn't get upset often, according to Fox analyst and former Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick, but when he does, you can't miss it. Billick, Smith's brother-in-law and former boss when Smith was a defensive coach in Baltimore, said Smith's white hair accenctuates his rapidly reddening face in moments of distress, creating the impression of "an alarm going off."

Dimitroff said Smith, who claimed NFL Coach of the Year honors in 2008, intuitively understands when to lean on his guys, when to ease off, when to throw an arm around a shoulder.

"He never browbeats these players," Dimitroff said. "But when it's time to turn it on, when Mike Smith gets that red tint in his complexion and starts barking out commands, the entire football field goes silent. I love it."

Smith returns the respect to his boss, whose savvy in selecting young talent might be surpassed only by his willingness to listen to input from those around him. The pair spent hours together constructing a team philosophy in which they would build through the draft - focusing on offense in 2008, defensive needs in '09 and a mix of the two this year - while spending judiciously on a few well-chosen veteran acquisitions each offseason, not only to supplement the team's talent but also to infuse the locker room with seasoned good guys to help lead all the youth.

The first free agent Dimitroff landed was Michael Turner, LaDainian Tomlinson's understudy in San Diego; in his third season in Atlanta, Turner is sixth-best in the league with 1,062 rushing yards.

A year later, Dimitroff traded for veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who quickly became a favorite target of Ryan; this season, he is fourth among NFL tight ends with 54 catches. In the '08 draft, Dimitroff not only got Ryan, but also starting left tackle Sam Baker; Lofton; left end Kroy Biermann and free safety Thomas DeCoud.

"I really believe it was very good that Mike Smith and I came in as a neophyte general manager and head coach, learning together," Dimitroff said. "We didn't have one of us with 10 years in the business, proselytizing to the other as we tried to kick this off. It was very beneficial to both of us."

Three years after the arrival of the key pieces of the organization, the Falcons don't feel so young anymore. They have turned the ball over fewer times than anyone else in the NFC (12), and lead the league in fewest penalties (48), fourth-quarter scoring differential (97-44) and third-down conversion percentage (48.1) - all categories that hint at a mature, disciplined team, not a wild, young one. At the very center of the achievements is Ryan, who has led the team to seven victories when the Falcons have trailed in the fourth quarter.

"We're young, for sure, but with that said, we're experienced," Ryan said. "We've got a lot of guys with only three or four years in the league who have been playing every snap for three or four years."

There's one area the team feels like it hasn't quite arrived: in national stature. The Falcons' close finishes this season have led some to question whether they are a powerhouse - or just lucky.

"We're not one of the high-profile teams in the league," said wide receiver Roddy White, who is second in the NFL with 91 receptions. "I'm pretty sure if the Dallas Cowboys were 10-2, they'd be the talk of the town. We're the Falcons; we are what we are."

Dimitroff and Smith aren't lobbying for national recognition. They're happy to continue with the same strategies they've employed since their first days together, knocking off one small milestone at a time, determined to earn every sliver of respect they get. In his office adorned with a high-tech stationary road cycle, Dimitroff didn't want to so much as touch a discussion of the Super Bowl.

It is just about the only issue that will silence him.

"We never mention 'S.B.' - I even struggle to say the word now," he said. "It's counterintuitive to me to talk about it. We have many, many goals, grandiose expectations for this team, but they're all internal and they're all sequential."

And they will all be achieved, he said, through steady hard work.

"This is a building," Dimitroff said, "that is, quite honestly, devoid of entitlement."

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