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Super Bowl: A follower of 'The Patriots Way' is now in the Patriots' way

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff visits with his team during practice this week.
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff visits with his team during practice this week.
Published Feb. 3, 2017

HOUSTON

Thomas Dimitroff held a cup of coffee and listened as his coach was peppered with questions for a fourth straight day at Super Bowl LI. Dressed in blue jeans, a sweater and a collared shirt, he didn't look 50.

Nor is he the young genius who took over as the Falcons' general manager in 2008.

With a goatee and bearing a slight resemblance to actor Ethan Hawke, he finds time for everybody. On Thursday, Dimitroff granted a half-hour to Sports Illustrated, shot a "How the Falcons were built" video for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and entertained questions from other reporters on his way to a TV interview.

Dimitroff was the Patriots' director of college scouting from 2003-07. His relationship with New England coach Bill Belichick goes back further, to his days as a grounds keeper and scout in Cleveland when "The Hoodie" was the Browns' coach.

Maybe it's serendipitous — or just plain bad luck — that with Dimitroff finally constructing a Falcons team good enough to reach the Super Bowl, New England is the opponent.

A follower of "The Patriots Way" is now in the Patriots' way.

So every interview with Dimitroff invariably begins with questions about his feelings about facing Belichick or about his team going against Tom Brady.

"This is kind of a dream game that way, to be able to go against the Patriots and against one of my mentors in this league," Dimitroff said.

Maybe it was bound to happen anyway. This is Belichick's 10th Super Bowl as an NFL assistant or head coach. He has been in more than 19 percent of the 51 Super Bowls.

At least he's not going through it alone. Dimitroff hired Scott Pioli as assistant general manager in 2014. Pioli was Belichick's right-hand man, running the Patriots' personnel department from 2001-08. Like many executives who leave New England, Pioli saw his bloom come off during a failed stint as the Chiefs' general manager.

Dimitroff seemed bulletproof when the Falcons had five winning seasons in a row and reached the playoffs four times under coach Mike Smith. But injuries contributed to a 4-12 record in 2013, and they followed that up with 6-10 the next year.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank stripped Dimitroff of his authority over the draft and free agency, giving it to coach Dan Quinn when he hired him two years ago after Smith, now the Bucs' defensive coordinator, was fired.

"You have to put all that noise aside because there can be a lot of critics," Dimitroff said.

But he found a partner in Quinn, who was greatly influenced by Pete Carroll's team bonding methods in Seattle. Two years ago, Quinn was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator when Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler clinched Super Bowl XLIX by intercepting Russell Wilson on second and confetti at the goal line.

Dimitroff stills seeks Belichick's advice but doesn't always take it. In 2011, he traded five draft picks, including two first-rounders, to move up 21 spots and draft receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama.

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"Our conversation about that had much more to do with, 'This is something that you better be very sure of, and whether you are or aren't, it's going to be with you for the rest of your career,' " Dimitroff said.

"I thought Bill was fantastic in that he would take all that Scott Pioli and the scouting staff had given him and would put him in a place to be as successful as possible. He wouldn't force-feed a guy into a spot just because this was the scheme. I also used (former Colts president) Bill Polian's approach in what he did in surrounding Peyton (Manning) with really good athletic players."

Defensively, Quinn was willing to play 12 first- or second-year players who can all run and hit. He instituted a "toughness" grade for players. Pingpong tables went up in the locker room. The music at practice got louder and more upbeat.

Dimitroff loves what he learned from the Patriots, and he didn't set fire to the lifeboats. But "The Falcons Way" is now entirely their own.

"There's definitely a northeastern stamp on it in certain ways, and yet we've really evolved into something that is very much the Falcons and not — obviously — the Patriots," Dimitroff said.

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