Scott Pioli is gone. The Falcons’ assistant GM over the past five years closed out his final chapter in Atlanta with an offensive line-heavy draft, and now he’ll ride into the next chapter of his life. We have no idea what that is, and we have no exact idea why he’s moving on, though he appears ready for a change one way or the other.
This has been an offseason of change and uncertainty in Atlanta, with Pioli’s exit only the latest log thrown on the fire. You don’t have to squint very hard to see the Falcons doing great things in 2019, but few things are less desirable to nosy bloggers and fans than not knowing the full story or the likely outcome of major decisions. With three coordinators out the door, quiet but persistent rumblings that Arthur Blank isn’t going to tolerate another bad year, and now Pioli’s exit, there’s a perception of pressure on this team to get things right, and a perception that the front office and coaching staff could be gone if they do not.
The loss of Pioli is hard to quantify, but it matters. The Falcons had a horrendous offseason heading into 2014, acquiring Paul Soliai (cool), Jon Asamoah (cool but ultimately disappointing), and Tyson Jackson (oh no). From there, though, the Falcons consistently put together quality offseasons and in particular great drafts with some real success (Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, 2016 Vic Beasley) along the trenches. That was a stark reversal from the early years when Thomas Dimitroff was going it alone, where he typically nailed skill positions but had more trouble with the lines. It’s fair to assume that the team’s recent results have something and perhaps a lot to do with Pioli, but unless the man himself or his bossfriend the Comrade wish to correct the record, we’ll never entirely know.
Jeff Schultz at The Athletic wrote an excellent piece about why Pioli’s leaving, and while he doesn’t come up with a slam dunk answer, he does a stellar job of setting up why the timing and the environment around the team are relevant to the exit.
Pioli’s exit was not stunning from the standpoint that he stayed five years in what was expected to be a three-year term, at most. But he chose an interesting time to leave. Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn are coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons, and everybody in the building is a little bit on edge, including owner Arthur Blank. There have been changes in the coaching staff and in the front office.
Make no mistake: Pioli’s departure is a significant loss. The Falcons have lost not only a bright football mind but also one of the truly good people in the building. The culture at team headquarters has changed significantly in recent years. The atmosphere is far more corporate and less genuine than before, with some employees looking over their shoulder, particularly as Blank has started to take a step back. The marketing and business side of the franchise has increasingly crept into the football side of the building.
Bluntly, Pioli’s exit was well-timed no matter how the Falcons fare in 2019. If the draft turns out to be a slam dunk and the team rebounds, Pioli has yet another successful offseason to point to if he’s gunning for another GM job, as one suspects he is in the coming years. If the Falcons flame out badly, he’s not around to get cleaned out with Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn. I believe that Arthur Blank has liked the offseason, which was designed to build depth after an injury-marred 2018 and keep Matt Ryan upright, but I also believe a bad 2019 would be enough to get him to move on to a new regime. Pioli’s had five largely quality years in Atlanta, showing patience, friendship to Dimitroff, and real acumen no matter what share of the credit he ultimately deserves, and whether Atlanta’s successful or not, he’s likely to get another look as a general manager. At the very least, he ought to be in play for a personnel job in New England again, where his ties are strong and the Pats are winding down the Tom Brady experiment of some limited success.
While Pioli hopefully takes a vacation and waits for his next opportunity, the Falcons have to replace him. The fact that they need to do so after free agency and the draft is a major comfort for the moment, as is the fact that they have a collection of former GMs hanging around in Ruston Webster and Phil Emery, plus recently promoted Director of Pro Personnel Shepley Heard, who has logged 14 years in various scouting roles with the Falcons and has thus been responsible for at least some of the team’s player acquisition success over that span. They can either lean heavily on their current group or promote one of them to Pioli’s vacated role, though I suspect they won’t be in a rush to do the latter.
I’m not going to suggest that replacing Pioli is going to be an easy task for Dimitroff, who lost a confidant and a talented evaluator, but at least in the short term the Falcons have options and have already buttoned up the biggest personnel decisions of their offseason. The long-term implications of losing someone like Pioli—and indeed, the fate of the team’s brain trust—are as yet unknown.
We wish Pioli well, regardless. The Falcons fan in me, which is never far from the surface, hopes the Falcons are wildly successful in 2019 and Pioli nabs a new job in 2020. It’s nice when everyone wins.