Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Over the next 48 hours or so, you’re going to hear a lot about Matt Ryan’s homecoming.
It’s a great story: Kid from Boston College goes back to New England to face the Patriots as quarterback of the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Even the fact the Patriots play a long way from the Boston College campus and Ryan never has met Tom Brady doesn’t diminish this storyline a bit.
But there’s another homecoming this weekend that’s not getting a lot of attention. This one’s got a lot more direct ties to the Patriots. This one’s about the guy who drafted Ryan.
This one’s about the hottest young general manager in the National Football League. That’s Thomas Dimitroff, who, two weeks into his second season in this role, has yet to make a mistake. He has the Falcons flying high and a win against the Patriots would establish Atlanta firmly among the NFL’s elite.
Yes, little Tommy Dimitroff is all grown up now and he has a team that might even be better than the Patriots. At the very least, they’ll remind you of the Patriots in a lot of ways.
That’s because Dimitroff was schooled in the Patriot way. It’s in his blood. His father, Tom, played quarterback for the Patriots before he was even born. Dimitroff earned his job in Atlanta by spending five years in the famed New England think tank, surrounded by Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli.
Dimitroff was New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007. The Patriots went 77-17 and won two Super Bowls during that time. They also have pretty much set the gold standard for the rest of the NFL this decade.
“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two highly regarded individuals like Bill and Scott," Dimitroff said. “Sitting in meetings and listening to them talk about how to build a football team and not being afraid to think outside the box was an incredible experience."
It was an experience that served Dimitroff well as he took over a franchise that was in total disarray when he was hired in 2008. Coach Bobby Petrino had just quit and franchise quarterback Michael Vick was in prison.
From that chaos, Dimitroff somehow cranked out a team that made the playoffs in his first season. He leaned heavily on what he learned from Patriots head coach Belichick and Pioli, the longtime Patriots vice president who left after last season to take over in Kansas City.
Dimitroff’s first task was to hire a coach and he wanted someone with some of Belichick’s characteristics. Sure, he wanted someone who knew how to handle X's and O's, but he wanted more than that. That’s why he turned to Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
“Bill was always very interested in personnel evaluations," Dimitroff said. “Mike came with understanding and a very strong interest in personnel evaluation."
If you walk through the Falcons’ practice facility, it’s not unusual to see Smith and Dimitroff sitting together and watching film. They trust each other’s knowledge and instincts. There rarely are arguments because they almost always are on the same page.
The importance of that is huge. Dimitroff said the ability of Pioli and Belichick to work as a team convinced him he needed the same thing in Atlanta.
“Bill and Scott had a tacit understanding that if there was a difference of opinion, they would hash it out together behind closed doors and would come to the decision that was best for the franchise," Dimitroff said. “I really wanted something like that when I was hiring Mike. I truly believe it’s paramount to the success of your franchise to have a coach and general manager who are always working in lock step together."
The coach-general manager relationship isn’t the only thing Dimitroff took from his time in New England.
“There was an indisputable understanding of roles from Bill," Dimitroff said. “He wanted everyone to be able to do what they do best and not be spread too thin. That’s something we believe here in Atlanta. That and the fact that we believe that everyone in the building needs to contribute, have fun, work hard and you’ll be rewarded with success."
That approach of working hard and having fun created a complete culture change in Atlanta when Smith and Dimitroff arrived. In many ways, the whole system is built on what Dimitroff saw so closely with Belichick and Pioli in New England.
But it’s important to note that it’s not exactly the same. If you’ve followed Belichick at all, you know he’s not exactly a media darling and he can be very secretive about everything. That’s where Dimitroff veered a bit off course from the Patriot way.
The bunker mentality that’s prominent in New England wasn’t going to fly in Atlanta because the fiascoes involving Petrino and Vick had done so much damage to the fan base. With veteran public relations director Reggie Roberts running the show, the Falcons set out to rebuild their image and make the franchise fan-friendly.
That kind of went against Dimitroff’s New England training, but it wasn’t a hard switch. By nature, Dimitroff is a friendly and open guy. Reporters can get him on the phone and he’ll seek them out on the practice field just to say hello.
“We have an owner [Arthur Blank] that wants accessibility and we have a PR staff that’s provided great guidance for Mike and I because we both were new to this. I have the utmost respect for Bill Belichick and I’ve followed many of his principles because he’s been so successful. But, in that regard, Mike and I and the rest of the organization have developed some different principles. I’m a firm believer in being yourself. You don’t want to be somebody that you’re not."
Basically, Dimitroff has taken everything New England does and installed a kinder, friendlier version in Atlanta and that’s turning out to be a pretty good model.
That’s why you won’t see Dimitroff going the route of some Belichick products and slapping their mentor when they get out on their own (Eric Mangini comes to mind). Dimitroff has nothing but praise for Belichick (and Pioli). If Dimitroff gets a chance before the game, he wants to shake Belichick’s hand, thank him for his help and, maybe, talk a little football.
“It’s going to be great going back to the stadium where I developed my approach to building a team," Dimitroff said. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of great people that I worked with. From a professional [standpoint], it’s a good test for our football team. The New England Patriots have set the benchmark for success in the NFL and they are a tremendous organization."
An organization that has spawned what’s shaping up to be a pretty good imitation down South.