Does anyone else remember way back when Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith were first hired that introductory press conference with Coach Smith, TD, and Arthur Blank sitting together fielding questions? I remember a lot of rhetoric being thrown around in their début about changing the culture and building a consistent winner, which is to be expected when a team hires a new Head Coach and GM combo so I was rather unimpressed with their talk. To be honest, I wasn't all too excited about the Smith hire, and didn't really expect much from the team heading into the season. But then that first game of the season rolled around, and Matt Ryan threw that first pass of his career and we all learned that he lived in Atlanta and was going to be there for a long time. After that first pass I knew we struck gold with Matt Ryan, and as the wins piled up for the team no one expected anything from the staff and front office earned my-as well as many others-approval.
I couldn't believe our luck. The football Gods forsaken franchise had proclaimed the Gospel of winning football, and it was all because of Smith and Dimitroff- or at least that's what it seemed to me at the time. As my admiration for the brain trust grew I began to read anything I could come across about them, and in my readings I remember one article that spoke about what really sealed the deal for TD's hiring. Apparently, Dimitroff had a 5 year plan- a sort of Marshall Plan to rebuild the obliterated Falcons in the wake of the Mike Vick disaster to a Super Bowl contender- that really rocked the fancy socks off of Arthur Blank, and as the years passed it seemed that he did indeed have the formula for creating a consistent winner.
Fast forward to now, year 6 of the TD-Smith regime, and we are all wondering where it went so wrong. At first there was the injuries excuse (though it really shouldn't be an excuse), and it seemed plausible since most of our games to begin the season were all very close. But things started to get ugly in a hurry. We went from being competitive to being stomped out by the lowly Bucs in what seemed like a couple of days, and all the while I tried to wrap my mind around the metamorphosis of my Falcons from a proud, majestic bird to a vermin of the league so foul Franz Kafka would've been inspired to write a sequel. Again and again my mind kept going back to Dimitroff's 5 year plan, and each time I did it confounded whatever theory I had to explain our historically bad season. Then a thought dawned on me: What if this 5 year plan was not to build a team with sustained success, but secure Dimitroff's success?
The NFL is an especially cruel business for GM’s and Head Coaches, as evidenced by the "coaching carousel" that happens every offseason. The NFL is an ever-changing landscape full of talented minds trying to find hidden talent among the college ranks and schemers trying to best maximize that talent. While a player who ends up a bust might still earn a salary as a back-up, usually front office executives and coaches get only one shot which may be a window of only a few seasons. Even though there is always a demand to win, normally new regimes are granted a Grace period so to say where a sub-par season or two is allowed while the team is gearing its roster with talent suited for the new coach’s philosophies , as long as there’s evidence of growth and improvement. , Basically, the point is any team that is good has to go through its "ugly duckling" phase where they weren’t so good- it allows the team to stockpile talent. With TD there was never that rebuilding phase. We went from 5-11 to 11-5, despite the fact our roster was stripped of talent like DeAngelo Hall, Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman, and other serviceable players. Instead of retooling our roster with young talent that could grow into our new systems, we opted the route of signing players who had already reached their ceiling.
When Mike Smith came to Atlanta he made it very clear he wanted to pound the rock with a power run scheme, and stop the run by controlling the line of scrimmage. In order to do that effectively normally a team would need an emphasis of building up front in the trenches first, then working its way back. Though we did sign a bruising combo and Ovie Mughelli and Michael Turner, we essentially didn’t do anything to build a power-O offensive line other than sign Harvey Dahl. Our team at that time was only one year removed from Jim Mora’s zone blocking scheme, which utilized quick agile lineman at the expense of power at the point of attack, and looking back quite frankly I’m surprised we had the success that we did. On the defensive side of the ball we were also under sized up front as well, and gave up size and strength at the point of attack for speed to be able to get after the QB. Once again what did we ever do to do build our defense in accordance to Smitty’s philosophy? Overpay Dunta Robinson and Ray Edwards, that’s what.
We relied too much on aging veterans like Jon Abraham and Tony Gonzales to be timeless (though I’d still love to have Abe), and asked too many players to play in schemes that weren’t suited to their strengths. We never truly rebuilt our team since Michael Vick, I’m guessing because Dimitroff would have rather invested in known (all be it maxed out) commodities rather than roll the dice on rookies and face the uncertainty of their development. And it nearly worked: Dimitroff won exec of the year twice and we were on the brink of the Super Bowl last year. But even hypothetically if we had won the Super Bowl last year, we still would have been in the same position we’re in now with holes all over our offensive line, no running game to speak of, ZERO pass rush, and questionable depth at linebacker which is hardly any better than the smoldering wreckage of the Bobby Petrino "lead" Falcons. The only difference is if we had won the Super Bowl we would have the conundrum of paying Dimitroff "loyalty alimony", which in reality we are already paying, and now in retrospect is what I think Dimitroff wanted all along: To do just well enough so that we’d be obligated to keep him around because of his track record.
Maybe I’m just a pessimist. Maybe I’m bitter about this failed season. Maybe it’s a little of both. But whatever the case it looks like we’re going to have to stick around for a year 7 of this regime, and while I hope our team can turn itself around and return to its winning ways my faith in TD has been shaken. And while Arthur Blank may publicly give his vote of confidence because he’s a stand up gentleman, I’m sure his faith has been rocked too. Basically, TD needs to get his $h!t together because 2014 is make or break for him and many other Falcons: executives, coaches, and players.