More so than other professional sports leagues in North America, the teams that remain competitive year-to-year in the NFL change drastically. It’s quite common for bottom-dwellers to rise to the top in a matter of months, and just about as common for the elite squads to free-fall into the basement in the same amount of time.
And yet, the Falcons -- an organization famous for its lack of consistency -- have made the postseason four of the last five seasons, posting records above .500 in each of those campaigns. Ask me back in the early 2000’s if I ever thought Atlanta would accomplish something like this, and I would have probably laughed. My Falcons? Those of record-setting futility? No way...
But here we are.
There are many reasons why Thomas Dimitroff’s team, one that had never experienced back-to-back winning seasons until 2008-2009, has been so successful of late. Today I’d like to focus on one very significant reason: their ability to quickly re-tool their roster.
We’ll use the defensive line as an example.
To say that the Falcons' D-line has been through its fair share of changes over the last few years would be a bit of an understatement. John Abraham, one of the best pass rushers in team history, is now gone -- cut this summer due to his age, proneness to injuries and expensive contract. Ray Edwards, who signed a $30 million deal in 2011, was released mid-season for his incredibly disappointing play. Jamaal Anderson, drafted 8th overall in 2007, never amounted to much -- playing four unproductive seasons in Atlanta and is now rotting away elsewhere.
So now, three guys who were expected to help lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl are no longer part of the organization -- gone for one reason or another, for better or for worse.
Plans fall apart often in the NFL. Those who can move on from failed plans and make quick, productive changes will rise above the rest.
The Falcons lost Abraham, so what did they do? They went out and got Osi Umenyiora, who will serve the team better than Abe would have in the long run. He’ll immediately give the Falcons a respectable pass rush, one that would be lost without him. Additionally, Dimitroff drafted two defensive ends this spring -- Malliciah Goodman in the fourth round and Stansly Maponga in the fifth.
"When we started out in 2008, we knew that we had a lot of moves to make and we had to be very creative in how we put the team together," Dimitroff said in February. "We had to acquire (some players) through free agency and we had to be very acute with our approach in the draft, which we did. We came out with some very adept football players."
This re-tooling, of course, extends far beyond the D-line...
Dunta Robinson didn’t work out as planned, and the coverage game needed some work, so the first two picks in this year’s draft were spent on CBs -- solidifying a position that has been a weakness for this team for ages.
The Falcons lost Alge Crumpler back in 2008, so what did they do? They went out and got the best tight end of all time.
The Falcons’ famous running game of the mid-00’s, led by Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn, deteriorated. So what did they do? They brought in Michael Turner, who is now the franchise all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns.
Turner eventually deteriorated himself, so they brought in Steven Jackson, one of the best power runners of our generation, perhaps of all time.
Truth is, no weakness on this team has gone unaddressed under the current regime, and no hole has been left vacant for an extended period of time.
It can be hard, amidst all the success we've been enjoying, to step back and truly appreciate how rare it is to have a GM operating on this level. There are maybe a handful of guys out there capable of re-tooling a team the way our GM has -- and that's a generous estimate.
Fact is, no team in this league can regularly win over the course of 3-plus seasons without significant roster turnover. Change happens in the NFL, and those who embrace it are those who will ultimately be the ones at the top of the standings.
Thomas Dimitroff understands this, and the results speak for themselves.