FLOWERY BRANCH — The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons were in their final segment of Tuesday morning’s combined practice when Thomas Dimitroff took a step back.
Make that a few steps back.
Instead of assuming his usual practice spot close to the sideline, Atlanta’s general manager sought a big-picture look at the 11-on-11 team drill.
“I was standing way back, just taking it all in, just more of a big picture than I ever have,” he said.
The new vantage point provided Dimitroff a big-picture view of his career.
Dimitroff was the Patriots’ director of college scouting from 2003-07. He helped find players who appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls in the 2003-04 seasons.
Now in his third season as Atlanta’s GM, Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have led a makeover that has produced immediate results. The Falcons made the playoffs with 11 wins in 2008 and finished 9-7 last year for the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
“You talk about fast-forwarding that many years and here I am humbly stated as one of the co-builders of this team and there is the former team I was with that I learned so much about,” he said. “I was feeling proud of the product we have on the field and showing my former team what we’re creating here. It’s a good feeling, a good feeling.”
The two combined practices on Tuesday gave Dimitroff a chance to show off his new team to the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick.
“It was a bit surreal to step back in the final period there and be watching both sides and feeling like, you know, this is my former team where I learned so much in terms of team-building and feeling proud of the product we have on the field,” Dimitroff said.
The Falcons and Patriots will play a preseason game at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.
This is the second set of combined practices for each team. The Falcons held combined practices with the Jacksonville Jaguars last week while the Patriots played host to the New Orleans Saints.
Belichick said his relationship with Dimitroff “probably was the starting point” of the agreement to hold one day of combined practices.
“We had talked about it in the past, ‘Hey, if we ever get the chance to do it, it’s something we’ll look into,”’ Belichick said.
“When the preseason schedule came out, then it fit. If we hadn’t played them in the preseason, I don’t think this would have happened.”
With NFL owners expected to discuss cutting two games from the preseason schedule, Dimitroff said the combined practices may become more common.
“That’s something where there is the potential we’re going to see a lot more of this,” he said. “Quite honestly I’m happy we’re on the front end of the curve here and one of the first teams that’s doing this with two teams. In my mind it could possibly evolve into a situation where these combined practices will be in lieu of two preseason games.”
The Patriots’ visit created a buzz rarely seen at the Falcons’ camp in August. Every completed pass from Tom Brady drew applause from fans. There were loud cheers after Brady’s deep completions, including a bomb to Randy Moss over Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens.
Moss also had a one-handed catch against Brian Williams.
“They’re a talented offense,” said Smith, who stayed with his Falcons defense during the practice. “We saw a great quarterback and a great wide receiver.”
Meanwhile, Falcons fans cheered Matt Ryan’s completions to Atlanta’s receivers.
At one point, the quarterbacks were leading the first-team offenses on adjacent fields. It was as if each quarterback was trying to top the other.
Like the fans, Dimitroff enjoyed the show.
“Let’s face it, there’s an element of competitiveness there on either field with Tom being on one field and Matt on the other,” he said. “I started listening for the roars of the crowd when Matt completed passes. You look and there’s Tom completing one and then you look and Matt is completing one to Harry Douglas.”
Ryan was a wide-eyed fan as he followed Brady while playing at Boston College. The two met last season when the Falcons took a 26-10 loss at New England.
“I watched Tom all through college when I was at B.C. and that was really right through their three Super Bowl runs,” Ryan said. “It was good to finally meet him last year when we played up there and to get to talk to him a little today.”
Brady said he also followed Ryan’s career.
“I’ve watched him since he was at Boston College and I’ve really enjoyed watching him play,” Brady said. “His first pass was for a touchdown. What a way to start a career.”
Brady said he liked the intensity of the practice.
“We came out here competing,” Brady said. “We came a long way for these practices, so we might as well do our best.”
NOTES: Douglas, who missed the 2009 season with a knee injury, is expected to make his preseason debut on Thursday night. ... Belichick said he left some players in Foxboro, Mass., who are not expected to play, but WR Wes Welker, also returning from a knee injury, was with the team. ... There will not be a combined practice today. The Patriots are planning only a walk-through session.
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