Learning to Fly Again
I step inside Falcons headquarters as GM Thomas Dimitroff scrambles to get Atlanta back on top. Plus, Michael Sam and Oprah get it right, Robert Mathis gets it wrong and where (I think) the 2015 NFL draft and Super Bowl 52 are going
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.— Many things to do today, the pivotal offseason of the Atlanta Falcons, the state of the 2015 NFL draft, why Michael Sam and new BFF Oprah did the right thing, Gregg Williams being in the perfect place at the right time, a former NFL general manager driving a basketball legend nuts, a tricentennial ruling the next Super Bowl bidding, a great documentary about a Lions quarterback/Kennedy pal/John Wayne co-star … but first, a story I want you to see, and the coolest photo we at The MMQB have ever run.
So we’ve started this 10-week series at The MMQB. It’s about the history of pro football, with an eye on the future in every story we do. We dispatched young Emily Kaplan down to NFL Films in south Jersey to see a living, breathing NFL museum, the office of the late NFL Films impresario Steve Sabol, whose workplace was left precisely how he last worked in it, right down to his last lunch order. Emily Kaplan wrote vividly of the place, and photographer Jeff Zelevansky took a breathtaking GigaPan photo of the office—you can put your cursor on anything in the office, focus on it and POOF! There it is, full and vivid, on your screen.
Look at the notes Sabol took after a long session watching Bill Parcells coach. Focus on it. Put your cursor on the binder with the Parcells notes, and you’ll see, down near the bottom of the page, what Sabol found after his Parcells experience.
“He’s more than old school. He’s a one-room schoolhouse with no lunch and no recess.”
And that, dear readers, is what our goal is at this site: We want you to walk into Steve Sabol’s office with Emily Kaplan and Jeff Zelevansky, seeing what they see, experiencing what they experience. That’s our goal with the series, and with this site. Hope you enjoy it. Next: On Wednesday, Tim Layden’s vivid story on the history of artificial turf, and how it’s affected the game. There’s a lot in there you would never think of.
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Good life lesson for the Falcons.
When coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff looked at their team in the last couple of years, there were things they didn’t like much. But when you coach and manage a team for five years, and you win 56 games and lose just 24, and you make the playoffs four out of five years, you tend to say, “We’re okay.”
Said Smith: “Human nature, when you’re getting positive results, is not to stress the negative. But when you get humbled, which happened last year, you’ve got to be realistic about your team.”
As the house-collapsing 4–12 season of 2013 proved, the Falcons were most definitely not okay. The pass-rush stunk. The offensive line stunk. The secondary leaked. And every time they got into the playoffs—Smith’s playoff record: 1–4—a team with a strong pass-rush and good secondary frustrated Matt Ryan and sent the Falcons home early.
And so, the night before the first round of this year’s draft, Dimitroff sat in his Buckhead home, watching NFL Network with his son Mason (Mason: “DAD!!! They’re saying your name wrong!”) and pondered the mess his team was in.
“We have gotten to the realization we were able to win a lot of games, but not the Super Bowl,” Dimitroff said. “And we realize how quickly a 4–12 season can change the perspective of a team-builder like me and a coach like Mike. For us, 4–12 has been productive vulnerability. We’re very confident in our ability to bring our team back, but this draft is crucial to getting us there.”
Atlanta had a boring draft, but a lucky one. The night before the draft, Dimitroff thought he had a deal with old friend Dave Caldwell, the GM of the Jaguars, to move from six to three … but it would have been a stupid deal in retrospect. Dimitroff had his heart set on Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, and he was fortunate Caldwell called him on draft morning and said, “We’re out. We’re staying put and picking our guy.” Blake Bortles. Forget the speculation. Dimitroff wasn’t going to pick Kahlil Mack. He was going Matthews all the way.
Now came the next piece of drama in the Atlanta draft room. New assistant GM Scott Pioli was a voice of calm in the room; he’d been urging Dimitroff to not be too eager to move back into the first round. Atlanta sat at 37, and wanted a pass-rusher—either a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The Falcons really wanted Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, who went to Pittsburgh at number 15. That was too high for Atlanta. Then the object of their affection was defensive end Dee Ford, and he would have cost a third-round pick for Atlanta to move into the mid-20s. But Kansas City grabbed Ford at 23, and there went the two rushers Dimitroff liked. Instead of overpaying for a player he didn’t love, Dimitroff sat and took high-risk/big-reward defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman of Minnesota. He didn’t get a pass-rusher until pick 139, in the fourth round: Notre Dame outside linebacker Prince Shembo, whose career was clouded by an encounter with a girl he met at Notre Dame who later killed herself. The circumstance around her death—Shembo was never charged with a crime—caused many teams to steer clear of him, and he’s a risk for the Falcons. But they were confident in the vetting of Shembo, and in his potential. So he’s the man Atlanta hopes can be the edge-rush help for the aging Osi Umenyiora that the quarterbacks of the NFC South will grow to fear. But the 139th pick is not exactly Jadeveon Clowney territory.
The night before the draft, it was clear Dimitroff wanted one more impact guy out of this draft that he just wasn’t able to get. “This league is about now, and it’s about impact players,” he said. “What did Marv Levy say? ‘Depth is great until you’ve got to use it?’ ”
Soon after the season, Dimitroff and Smith had a summit meeting with owner Arthur Blank. “We have been the hardest on ourselves, and Mr. Blank was hard on us too,” said Dimitroff. “But I welcome that. We deserved it. I’ll be damned if I ever say adequate is okay.”
Blank, who co-founded The Home Depot, told me: “In the NFL, what we’ve learned is a pat hand doesn’t work. From my days at Home Depot, I learned good is the enemy of great. I told Thomas and Mike I was going to have faith in them, because they deserved it after five good years. But they worked at it. They had my plane for 322 passenger hours, not including the combine, going all over the country to find players we need. They’ve been very analytical.”
Dimitroff added several analytics tools to the Falcons’ offseason. The force plate, which measures athleticism and lower-body muscle usage, was important in an effort to gauge the strength of draftees … and to help the team teach offensive linemen to fire off the line in a slightly different way than they had been doing, to help reduce Lisfranc and calf injuries. Instead of firing out on the balls of the feet, linemen are firing out with the lower part of their feet, to even out the pressure on the foot and whole leg. Dimitroff has also used Fusionetics, which educates players about which of their movements increase the chance of injury.
“This is not in any way a quest to find excuses for why we went 4–12,” Dimitroff said. “It is just us being mindful to try to do everything we can to keep our players healthy and at a top performance level. And give credit to Smitty—he’s been on board with everything to try to be sure our players are playing at their peak.”
Mike Tice and Bryan Cox have been imported as assistants on the offense and defense, respectively, in part to instill a toughness that has been missing. “We’ve got to get back to winning the line of scrimmage,” said Smith. Matthews at right tackle, Hageman in the interior of the defensive line, and Shembo as an outside rusher … if those all work, the Falcons will be back strong in 2014. But if Matt Ryan gets whacked around like last year, and if Smith’s defense can’t pressure the quarterback, it’ll be a battle again to stay out of the NFC South basement. And Blank won’t be so patient then.