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Putnam: Dimitroff, Falcons could learn from Colts

POSTED: January 18, 2014 8:13 p.m.

It’s your move, Thomas Dimitroff.

That is to say, moves, plural. Big, franchise-shaping moves.

Four months ago there was plenty of optimism that the Atlanta Falcons would still be alive in the NFL playoffs right now, busy preparing for their second consecutive NFC championship game and perhaps ready to take the next step with a Super Bowl appearance.

Tony Gonzalez believed it enough to delay retirement for a year.

Instead, tonight’s conference title matchup will feature the Seattle Seahawks, who almost overcame a 20-point deficit to defeat the Falcons in the divisional round last January, and the San Francisco 49ers, who eliminated Atlanta one week later.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are coming off a first-to-worst season that saw them finish 4-12 — the franchise’s first losing season since Dimitroff was hired in 2008 — and the burden to get the team back on a fast track to championship contention falls squarely on the general manager’s shoulders.

The good news for Dimitroff is that the Falcons hold the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, marking the first time the team will pick higher than 19th (without trading picks to move up) since he selected quarterback Matt Ryan third overall in 2008.

In short, this is the best opportunity Dimitroff has had to add multiple impact rookies to the Falcons’ roster in six years.

It’s also the right time for him to reassess who the Falcons are and where they need to go from here.

The temptation for any executive in this situation might be to see a team that needs minor tweaks rather than wholesale changes. Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have led the Falcons to the most consistent success the franchise has ever seen, and the team has seemed close to championship-caliber on more than one occasion prior to its tumble in 2013.

But the reality is, as the Falcons have learned repeatedly in the playoffs, that last step is a doozy.

Actually hoisting a Lombardi trophy is much different than posting a pretty regular season record and bagging a playoff win or two, no matter who you have on your roster.

Need more evidence? Just ask the team who the Falcons seem to have been most closely patterned after: the Indianapolis Colts of the Peyton Manning era.

Colts owner Jim Irsay was criticized earlier this season when he insinuated that the team wasn’t well-rounded enough while Manning was quarterback.

“We’ve changed our model a little bit because we wanted more (Super Bowl rings),” Irsay said, referring to the fact that the Colts only won one Super Bowl despite making 11 playoff appearances with arguably the best quarterback and best offense in the league.

Irsay’s comments drew widespread criticism, described as everything from a slap in Manning’s face to the owner’s attempt to play mind games with his former quarterback just days before a head-to-head meeting with the Broncos in Indianapolis.

 

Irsay was portrayed as criticizing Manning's play largely to provide a storyline ahead of that game, but I think he was referring to the structure around Manning in those years, not the quarterback himself. 

I can’t remember ever hearing anyone within the Falcons’ organization compare the team to the Colts of yesteryear, but if you look at the way Dimitroff built the team over the last few years, it’s not hard to see similarities.

The Falcons, like the Colts, put heavy emphasis on surrounding a talented quarterback with multiple top-level weapons on offense. Granted, Ryan isn’t Manning, but he’s among the seven or eight best signal callers in the league.

In place of Colts star receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark and running back Edgerrin James, the Falcons have featured the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson.

The Colts built their offense at the expense of their defense. They routinely produced an impressive regular season record, only to fall well short of championship expectations in the playoffs. And in a span of less than a year, they went from being a playoff team to one of the worst clubs in the NFL.

All of this sounding more and more familiar?

Even when the Falcons have enjoyed good health and the line has functioned at an acceptable level, the team has often struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone, or to make a crucial 1-yard gain when needed.

What happens now that Gonzalez’s Hall of Fame credentials have been subtracted from the offense and Roddy White, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, is starting to show signs of wear and tear?

With the significant financial commitment the Falcons have made to Ryan, he has to be able to lead an effective offense without having an elite target to throw to at virtually every other skill position. It’s great to have a star receiver like Julio Jones, but Ryan is at a point in his career where the burden is on him to make his receivers better, preserving cap room to build a better line to protect him and a defense to support him.

If Dimitroff simply sticks with the same formula, using top draft picks, trades and high-priced free agent signings to continue surrounding Ryan with elite playmakers, will the overall results be any different than what we’ve already seen?

There’s no one correct model for success in the NFL; we’ve seen high-powered offenses and stingy defenses carry teams to glory.

However, there’s little question that putting too much emphasis on either side of the ball leaves that unit a small margin for error when matched up against the top teams in the league. That’s tough to overcome, even when you have someone as good as Peyton Manning.

The Falcons have a lot of holes to fill in the offseason, particularly up front on both sides of the ball.

There will be a lot of talk between now and the 2014 NFL Draft in May about whether the team should use its first-round pick on an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, or some other position, but what the franchise does from this point forward is about much more than one pick or even one entire draft.

The Falcons’ free fall shouldn’t just be written off as one fluke, injury-riddled season. Dimitroff has to take a hard look at just how strong of a contender the team ever truly was, and how much he needs to change about his own building model going forward.

While he’s doing that, it might not be a bad idea to listen closely to what Jim Irsay was really trying to say.

Jared Putnam is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @jaredputnam or contact him at jputnam@gainesvilletimes.com.



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