Aside from the Cleveland Browns of the NFL world, there's a surprising mini-trends amongst NFL teams, and it involves continuity at the top.
The San Diego Chargers kept Coach Mike McCoy, who has had a mostly disappointing tenure, though they did get rid of a bunch of assistants. The Colts returned both Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, despite both being pilloried in the media and reportedly being at one another's throats. The 49ers kept embattled general manager Trent Baalke. The Jaguars and Rams are keeping former Falcons personnel men Les Snead and Dave Caldwell, as well as their head coaches, despite some very mixed results for a very long time. These teams have surveyed the NFL landscape, decided that the risk of getting a worse candidate and/or changing the team significantly outweigh the benefits of sticking with what they've got, and held on. For a handful of teams, at least, taking a hard look at the lack of success enjoyed by the constantly churning Browns and the relative success of stable teams like New England, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay has yielded the lesson that sometimes you're better off not making the change.
The Falcons have also taken that route, as they announced this morning that they're retaining Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli. This is a deeply unpopular move with the fanbase, and a more than mild surprise to me, considering I felt that both Dimitroff and Pioli would either be out or pursuing other gigs this offseason. With Blank's strong statement and Dan Quinn's support, though, they'll be back for another season, trying to build on a very promising 2015 draft class and give Quinn and his staff the pieces they need for a winning Falcons team.
That doesn't mean there won't be repercussions for three years of mediocrity, however. Let's take a closer look at what's ahead.
How did they survive?
Dimitroff and Pioli's hit rate in the draft is not considerably worse than other NFL general managers, even highly respected ones like Seattle's John Schneider and Green Bay's Ted Thompson. The major difference is that those men have built annually successful squads by landing quality undrafted free agents and snatching up undervalued players like Russell Wilson and Mike Daniels in the middle-to-late rounds, where Dimitroff has typically had less success. He's nailed a handful of truly great players (more than one by trading up), but the 2011 trade for Julio and the laughably weak 2012 and 2013 classes that followed have done a lot to put the team in the deep hole it finds itself in now.
Free agency, on the other hand, has been a decidedly mixed bag. For every Michael Turner, there have been three Phillip Adams, players who fill positions of need but do very little to make a positive impact on the team. Relatively big money signings like Ray Edwards, Tyson Jackson, and Brooks Reed have typically been failures.
On balance, then, you'd suggest that Dimitroff has been a less-than-stellar general manager, though probably not a below average one. Considering he's been at the helm since 2008, and considering there's a new coach in town who has considerably more say in personnel than Mike Smith did, it seemed like an 8-8 season would mark the end of his tenure.
Two things likely led to Arthur Blank and the Falcons retaining him. One is that Dan Quinn legitimately appears to have gone to bat for Dimitroff, and he's repeatedly mentioned that he enjoys a strong working relationship with the general manager. If Quinn feels he has a voice in the front office, that Dimitroff is willing to listen and try to prioritize getting him the players he wants, and enjoys long tandem bicycle trips, then Blank would have to have a very strong candidate that Quinn would be comfortable with in order to replace Dimitroff. Given the trust he's placed in Quinn, it's likely his vote of confidence was enough.
The second, of course, is that Dimitroff is kind of out of the scouting game at this point. It's not difficult to argue that the Falcons' chief failings in terms of personnel over the last eight years have had to do with scouting and development, as they land players like Dezmen Southward who don't live up to their billing, and the coaching staff simply hasn't been able to do much with them. Presumably the Falcons feel better about the development piece since acquiring Quinn, but if they feel Dimitroff and Pioli are acting on the best intelligence they have from their scouts, then the arrow points logically to those scouts.
Ultimately, it's a move geared toward the happiness of the new coach, continuity, and perhaps a muted appreciation for the best of the moves Dimitroff and Pioli have been responsible for in recent years. In Blank's polished shoes, I'm not sure I would have done the same even with Quinn in my ear, but that's likely why he made the move.
The axe falls down the chain
As I noted above, though, an 8-8 season doesn't come without consequences. From Blank's statement:
We are going to make a number of changes to our pro personnel and college scouting departments and that process began this week. It will take some time, but we will be adding talent on the pro personnel side and re-organizing both of these groups to best align with the shared vision of Coach Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. I expect these changes will produce positive results for our team.
Lionel Vital has been a respected personnel man for a long time now, but he may be out, along with a lot of longtime personnel guys and scouts. Besides Quinn's endorsement, there had to be changes to the way the Falcons acquire their talent, and it appears there will be a major shakeup coming down the pike. Again, if you're willing to assume that Scout A put his neck out for, say, Dezmen Southward, this is at least a somewhat defensible move.
The question is what kind of talent the Falcons will be adding to pro personnel, and at what point there are way too many cooks in an already crowded kitchen. If Pioli wants his own hand-picked group of scouts, that makes a certain amount of sense, but I'm not sure who they're going to add to the pro personnel side that's going to provide a tangible upgrade and/or not butt heads with Dimitroff and Pioli. I guess we need to see how these changes shake out, but after Mike Smith got canned a year ago and Dimitroff survived, this certainly has the feel of another bloodletting that looks suspiciously like scapegoating.
Considering how promising the 2015 draft class looks, it's an odd time to make a move on that side of the house, as well.
There are many ways this could go sour. Dimitroff or Pioli could still try to bolt for another gig, or the Falcons could "enjoy" another mediocre season and both could be out the door heading into 2017. For now, though, Atlanta will take its confidence that it's headed in the right direction to its logical extreme and keep the two primary architects of this roster for one more year, banking that they'll be able to build on a couple of promising classes and nail free agency this year. It is, unquestionably, a gamble, but it's the kind teams are increasingly taking.
We have to hope it's the right decision. If it's not, a new stadium will be opening to lukewarm interest in 2017, and Dan Quinn may find he's hitched his wagon to the back of the wrong bicycle.