|Paul Abell / Associated Press|
|Atlanta's brain trust of coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff has the team contending for the NFC's top seed.|
Thomas Dimitroff doesn't drive a Volkswagen conversion van anymore, even if he is trying to convince his wife that there's a spot next to his garage in Buckhead (an affluent area of Atlanta) where one could go. Those days of cooking on the propane stove and sometimes even sleeping in the back of that old bus on scouting trips are gone now. Even if he got a new rig for old time's sake, it would only be used to take his young son camping.
But marks of the hours spent in that van are all over his Atlanta Falcons, as the GMâs rebuilding effort, performed in collaboration with coach Mike Smith and his energetic, inventive staff, builds to its apex.
If the Falcons can win on Sunday in Tampa, Atlanta will own the league's best record and be the first team to get to 10 wins (joined by the winner of Monday night's Jets-Patriots game). Yup, those Godforsaken times of former coach Bobby Petrino yelling "woo pig sooey" on his way out of town to coach the University of Arkansas seem like a century ago. This regime's ability to unify a fractured organization has made it so.
These days, there's no split. Every Falcon is headed in the same direction. And that's because, finally, after three years of drafting and working the roster, and developing players, a like-minded group has emerged.
That old bus died a sad death, its transmission shot, after being with Dimitroff for stints working as an area scout for the Lions, Browns and Patriots out of Boulder, Colo. But the GM still tries to beat the bushes for players in the same manner he learned back then, and that means getting to know the guys as people, which has led to Atlanta having a team full of his kinds of guys.
"That's something Smitty and I, guys like Les Snead, Lionel Vital, David Caldwell and the entire personnel staff are very proud of," Dimitroff said. "This organization spent a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of money trying to acquire system fits, and locker room fits. If you get them young, and you keep them in the system from Day 1, that can be incredibly beneficial. Then you add the right veteran players, that are open to change in technique to go to Smitty's system schematically.
"I feel like we have an impressive nucleus of players, and best of all, they have each others' backs. That's something we're very proud of, too. This team comes to work every day and they want to be at work. They're enjoying the journey."
When you're 9-2, that's easy. But it's when it wasn't so easy that Dimitroff and Co. saw that quality shine brightest. While Dimitroff comes from New England, a place where they live and breathe "one week at a time," he believes the team's three-game winning streak to close out last year at 9-7 had a carryover effect this year.
It proved the resolve of a young core headed by quarterback Matt Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the headliners in a star-studded 2008 draft class. And it also validated Dimitroff's approach as a young GM, which brings us back to that VW bus.
See, back when he was riding through the Rockies and the Pacific coast, he got the chance to know the players he was scouting, both athletically and from a personal standpoint. The experience was invaluable, and while he can't spend the time he used to, he still makes a point to get out to a couple campuses a week to scout, before diving in headlong in the spring.
Thanks to Falcons owner Arthur Blank's generosity, he can be more efficient now, riding in the owner's Leer jet, rather than on the freeway. But the idea hasn't changed.
"You don't want to bring in guys who don't fit," Dimitroff says. "I'm not talking about just the criminal aspect of it, but also having personalities here that believe in the tenets of our team concept. It's something I look for, and it's something Smitty feels very strongly about. When we came in here, coming off 2007 and all the tumultuous events, three years later having what we have here, we're happy.
"It's gotta be settling for Arthur. None of us in football are angels, a lot of guys have stuff in their background to get through, but that stuff hasn't caused major distractions."
So how has it manifested on the field? If the team avoids a turnover against the Buccaneers, they'll set a record for most consecutive games without one, at five. Part of that, Dimitroff believes, is good fortune, but a larger factor is the focus, drive and awareness of the players on the team.
The same things he saw in "opportunistic" players like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Kevin Faulk and Tom Brady in New England, Dimitroff says he's starting to see in defensive guys like Lofton, Sean Weatherspoon, Mike Peterson, William Moore and Jonathan Babineaux. Just as significant, the timing between Ryan and weapons like Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Tony Gonzalez has hit a new level.
All that came together three weeks ago against the Ravens, and the example was reinforced with another last-minute win against an elite opponent (Green Bay) Sunday.
"(Baltimore) was the monumental game for us," Dimitroff said. "What happened there, when we were in those spots against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh earlier in the season, we didn't rise to the level we expected. Coming out that many games later and hitting more consistently, we left that game with a confidence we've carried the last two games. Facing the Packers, I felt markedly different than I did against Baltimore.
"Before, I was waiting to see how we'd do against a top team. I had a different feeling against Green Bay. I had confidence in that team. I wasn't relaxed, but I had more assurance in this team, more settled nerves. We're not the youngest team in the league anymore, but we're still young at a lot of positions and these are big games. Just like we went through it earlier, we've been in so many battles now and that should pay dividends down the stretch."
By the end of the conversation, Dimitroff was just finishing the drive from Phoenix to Tucson to scout the annual Territorial Cup game between Arizona and Arizona State. He wasn't driving a VW. But he might as well have been.
Those days are, in a way, representative of these days, and these days are pretty good.
"We're where we wanted to be," said Dimitroff. "Last year was a disappointment. We got back-to-back winning seasons and that was important for our owner and our fan base, but speaking for myself and Smitty, we were agitated. This year, we're pleased with the progress. Last week was another step."
Dimitroff stopped short of saying he and his group have arrived in any way, instead pointing out that he'd like to see the team do a better job coming out of halftime and achieve more consistency overall.
But after a pleasant surprise of a 2008 season, and a disappointing year in 2009, the GM knows enough to enjoy the journey in 2010. And that's in large part because, for Dimitroff, that journey started a long time ago, on some pretty interesting wheels, and still is a long way from its end.
Sunday night's loss to San Diego was a significant one for the Colts, and not just because the gap between the Chargers and the home team seemed jarringly cavernous. It also ended the team's remarkable run of seven consecutive 12-win seasons, and raises a question that most folks (including this reporter, who picked Indy to win it all) didn't think would come in 2010: Is there any hope for Indianapolis going into December?
The Colts have started 42 different players through 11 games, and beyond just having names like Melvin Bullitt, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez on injured reserve, there have been tons of players missing practice or games every week.
"They have more injuries in crucial areas than most teams would be able to handle," said one AFC scout who's studied the club closely. "Given that schedule, and having the first-place schedule like they always seem to, it's actually pretty impressive that they've been able to hold on and be competitive, outside of Sunday night. They've been in every game, even with the injuries mounting up. It's more obvious on defense, with guys like (Gary) Brackett and (Clint) Session."
Indeed, Brackett and Session -- who missed the better part of November -- are expected to play Sunday against Dallas. The hope, though always a tepid one, is that safety Bob Sanders can make it back at some point in December, which would mitigate the loss of Bullitt, Sanders' permanent temp.
Of more concern is the unsteady state of the almost-always-reliable offense. The running game is nonexistent, which isn't that shocking, and Peyton Manning has thrown nine picks in his last four games, which is. He's only had four such quarter-season runs in his career. One came in the first four starts of his career. Another came because of one horrible night, a six-interception aberration. And finally, another one was in 2001, the year Jim Mora was fired.
So what's up with Manning? It probably has more to do with the folks around him than anything. First, so much of what makes this particular quarterback great is his ability to establish timing and rhythm. That's tougher to do without Reggie Wayne (a 10th-year Colt), Clark (an eighth-year Colt) and Joseph Addai (a fifth-year Colt) on the field together.
"They're so precise with that passing game, that it becomes part of their running game, too. That 4- to 5-yard option route to Clark, going under on the smash route with (Pierre) Garcon and Wayne," the scout said. "He's so accurate, so on cue, that it's very difficult to stop."
OK, so follow me here. Defenses have always tried to disrupt that rhythm and timing, but since Manning and his receivers had that rapport, they always had an answer. With Blair White and Jacob Tamme taking the reps of Austin Collie and Clark, that timing isn't at the same level. So if the offense is disrupted, and the reaction isn't there, Manning holds the ball and an offensive line hurt by some rare Bill Polian misses on draft picks -- like Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak -- is exposed.
Now, Manning's getting hit, and scouts will tell you that he doesn't take the beating quite as well as Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. And as our scout puts it, "If his rhythm is broken, he can be rattled, and he makes mistakes when he's rattled. He doesn't like getting hit."
Can he recapture the magic? "Well, in terms of quarterbacks, I still think he's No. 1. Or maybe he and Brady are 1 and 1A," the scout continued. And a weakened AFC South could be the elixir that gets Indy into the playoffs and then, believe it or not, the Colts would host a wild-card team, potentially a club like the Jets, Patriots, Ravens or Steelers.
So bad as it might seem for the Colts, things might look different in a month.
I know this truth â¦
Ravens-Steelers is the meanest, nastiest rivalry in the NFL. I'm pretty excited to be heading to M&T Bank Stadium for another installment, this time on a Sunday night. Let's just say the evening kickoff won't be the only thing making this one feel like it's being held in a dark place. They all feel that way.
"It's like they say, meet me after school at 3, by the tree in the park, we're gonna slug it out," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said, as he exited the locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday. "Nobody's blocking it, nobody's car has brakes. It's full speed ahead, and let's see who's gonna hit harder."
"This rivalry is real old-school -- there's no trick-em here, just smashmouth football -- and the fans appreciate that," said tailback Ray Rice over the phone, a few days later. "It's sort of like you're battling your brother, you lock each other in the closet, and whoever fights their way out wins. That big brother-little brother fight, whoever comes out is the winner."
Both clubs have won championships in the new millennium. The teams have played twice in the playoffs, once for a conference title, while Pittsburgh has taken 13 of the 23 meetings since 2000. Ten of those games have been determined by a field goal or less, and 14 have had single-digit margins at day's end.
Pittsburgh is a clear-cut "big brother," if you borrow Rice's phrasing. Not only does Pittsburgh have the overall edge, the Steelers also have won both playoff meetings, and they've set the standard over the last 40 years for the style of play this rivalry's been known for.
And if you really want to dig deep, you can see those roots on both sides, with the Ravens' lineage stemming from the old Cleveland Browns, the Steelers' fiercest and most natural historical rival. That gives both teams an expectation of what's comng.
"We're mirror images of each other," said ninth-year Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "We're both tough, hard teams that like to play good defense and control the game with running game, both have great quarterbacks, and it's gonna be one of those types of games, man. It's gonna come down to the end."
That's what history says, anyway. Both these teams come into Sunday with some cracks in the armor. The Steelers rank fifth in the NFL in total defense, and the Ravens are eighth, but neither seems to have the overbearing look that the championship-level units of the past have had.
There's still time, of course, for that to change, but linebacker Terrell Suggs points out, "We've been the No. 1 defense for years, how many Lombardi Trophies do we have? Let's not play the stat game. Let's get wins. Let's get to Dallas. The first step is winning the division."
A big step is in front of these 8-3 teams now. Each expects to find out a little bit about themselves Sunday.
"We really find out who's with us, and who's not in the Steelers game," Suggs said. "You find out who's a Raven, and who's just wearing the uniform."
I don't know a thing â¦
About which team is going to land in Los Angeles, when the inevitable happens and the NFL returns to the nation's second-largest market. But after talking to SportsCorp president Marc Ganis, who was involved in the departure of both the Rams and Raiders, and has his eye on this situation, I'm not so sure it's happening anytime soon.
Ganis, who's been involved in the development of dozens of facilities in all sports, and is a prominent figure in NFL stadium dealings, thinks that it won't be until "2015-20" before a new team arrives in L.A. That idea runs counter to the sudden recent talk of momentum, but Ganis has his reasons for feeling that way.
The first one is one that everyone acknowledges -- until the labor situation is resolved, that nothing is happening in Los Angeles. That's bought time for the AEG group, which wants to build a stadium downtown, adjacent to Staples Center, to catch up to Ed Roski and Majestic Realty, which has a fully developed plan in Industry (20 miles east of downtown) that has already cleared governmental hurdles. And the recent media blitz shows AEG is making an effort to do that.
But what's funny is, Ganis thinks neither is the best place for the NFL to go.
"The location in Los Angeles was, is, and likely will remain Chavez Ravine," Ganis said of the location where the Dodgers play. "All the necessary infrastructure is there, stadium activity already takes place 81 days a year there, so adding 10 is not a big issue. Union Station is so close, and parking space is relatively close to that, so you can utilize downtown parking. No businesses or residences need to be displaced. It was, is and will remain the best, but politically, it remains a challenge."
The league, city, state, and any potential relocating team would have to pick one of the potential sites, after all the labor issues are worked out. Then there's the matter of which team will move to Los Angeles, which Ganis says will be far more complicated than the mid-1990s moves of the Raiders, Rams, Oilers and Browns, where failed expansion efforts in St. Louis, Baltimore and Tennessee left suitors waiting.
Seven potential candidates would have roadblocks if they intended to move. The Jaguars, perhaps the most talked-about club in moving talks, have a lease they extended through 2030 back in 2002, and it won't be easy to wriggle free. The Rams, under a new owner (Stan Kroenke) with ties to both L.A. and Missouri, are interesting, but if the public sector steps up and provides upgrades to make the Edward Jones Dome a "first class" facility before 2015, they'll be locked in to St. Louis.
The Bills won't move so long as owner Ralph Wilson, who's in good health, is alive, and they've worked to tap into the Toronto market to survive in Western New York. The Vikings have 11 regular-season games left on their lease, but the league would like them to stay in Minneapolis, which Ganis calls "too good of a market" for the NFL to leave. Of course, if the Browns could burn Cleveland and the Colts could bolt Baltimore, the Vikings shouldn't be ruled out, particularly because of the relative logistical ease.
That leaves the three California teams, and with the 49ers swearing they're committed to the Bay Area, the Raiders and Chargers are the two logical clubs in play. But while those two could well pick up and move to the state's biggest city, politics could then come into play.
The Industry site already has obtained exemptions to state environmental laws to build, and AEG or any other developers would have to get the same clearance. But in reporting on this story in the past, I've seen skepticism that the government would be as cooperative if the effort wasn't going to add a business to the state, but rather just take one and relocate it, which could complicate things for a California team trying to go to L.A.
So it won't be easy. It is possible that a team could move there before a stadium is built. Majestic exec John Semcken told me in February that their plan was to have a club play in the Rose Bowl or Los Angeles Coliseum until construction was complete. But there's a long way to go, and everything that's happening now, while the CBA issue is unresolved, is simply sides jockeying for position.
"It's an enormously difficult proposition," said Ganis. "A lot of misguided optimism has come out of parties in L.A. Until the labor issue is resolved, there will be no resolution to the L.A. situation. They can say, 'We'll work to put ourselves in a good position,' and enhance their relative situations. But there's a long way to go."
Get ready for the complaining. This weekend's two big primetimers -- Ravens-Steelers and Jets-Patriots -- could well pave the way to the AFC having pretty overqualified fifth and sixth seeds. And those teams could well have to go to places like San Diego (cross-country trip) or Indianapolis (where the Colts play their game at the highest level), which raises the question of whether that circumstance is an example of the regular season's significance being hurt. It's fair to say that maybe the Chargers and Colts wouldn't have to pay the price for their missteps like others have, but there is good reason to keep the status quo. It's impossible for the NFL to balance its schedule like other sports, which means that each division is operating in a very different environment, and records aren't always what they seem. That's why, the feeling is, division winners should continue to be rewarded.
.. And 10
1) Who'd have thought, when he was that cute little Hard Knocks story, that RB Danny Woodhead would be a centerpiece theme to a game between the 9-2 Jets and 9-2 Patriots on a Monday night in December? Somehow, someway, he is. Woodhead, in replacing New England third-down back Kevin Faulk, has piled up 537 yards from scrimmage on 88 touches, which comes out to a 6.1-yard average. He's averaging 5.4 yards per rush and 9.6 yards per catch. Those three numbers best Faulk's figures from last year, while he's just 99 scrimmage yards away from matching his predecessor's 2009 total. Jets coach Rex Ryan is already on record as saying he regrets the move to waive Woodhead, which happened on Sept. 14 to make room for the club to bring David Clowney (now a Panther) back and shore up its receiver depth. The really amazing thing? The Patriots were right there with the rest of the league on the scatback that week. Woodhead, carrying a one-year, league-minimum contract, actually cleared waivers, meaning every team passed on a chance to open a roster spot and add him. It wasn't until later that week that Woodhead chose the Patriots over a handful of other teams, because he thought it was the right fit for him. New England didn't let another opportunity pass them by, locking up the ex-Chadron State star through 2012 two weeks ago.
2) Speaking of Woodhead, would you believe he's been comparable as a receiver to a slightly more famous ex-teammate of his named Randy Moss? It's true. Moss has 17 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns since he was traded on Oct. 6, and his teams have gone 1-6. Woodhead has 23 catches for 219 yards in that time, and the Patriots have gone 6-1. So is Moss approaching the cliff that some receivers suddenly careen off of in their mid-30s? Possible. But there are a couple factors to consider. It's obvious that the Titans' ugly rotation at quarterback hasn't helped, and even more apparent that the Vikings circus was in full swing (though Moss was one of the ringmasters) during his short-circuited return there. Tennessee fully expects Kerry Collins back on Sunday against the Jaguars, and Kenny Britt's possible return in Week 14 would also help in taking the heat off. But the Titans also feel like they haven't done enough to get him loose, and the hope is they can do more to help light his fire. Moss better hope it works. His drive for a contract was at the root of this mess, and he'll need to start producing soon if that pursuit is going to bear anything more than the kind of offseason treatment Terrell Owens got last year.
3) Saints coach Sean Payton raised an interesting point this week for the Competition Committee to consider. When asked if the videoboards can give a home team an advantage in deciding whether or not to challenge a play, Payton mentioned how he got to watch a college game on Saturday, since the Saints played on Thanksgiving, and saw a replay solution he liked. "The efficiency with which they replay was very impressive," Payton said. "It seems -- and I understand how we started on this and where we're at now with it -- like that's something that I would be in favor of us looking closely at. Forget the JumboTron or the booth feed, generally when I err with a challenge, it's in an aggressive fashion and we don't win it. My concern always is missing one that could've been challenged and chaged." The college game, for those who don't know, employs an actual replay official in the booth who determines what is and isn't reviewable. It's efficient, because that person's job is to do it efficiently, and keep the game moving. Something to think about.
4) You knew you'd hear Jon Gruden's name once jobs became available, and with the college coaching carousel in full swing, it came up in a serious way this week with the University of Miami opening. Word is he's intrigued by the Cowboys opening, and there's always been speculation he could land in San Francisco because he's off the Bill Walsh tree. Ownership presents an interesting issue in both spots. In Dallas, his ability to work with Jerry Jones, and cede the ultimate personnel control, would be key. But each week Jason Garrett fields a competitive, tough team, and he has three weeks running, Jones becomes more emboldened to remove "interim" from the head coach's title. It's really, ultimately, what he wants to do anyway. As for San Francisco, if Mike Singletary doesn't turn it around and a change in necessary, Jed York would likely a) have to pay top dollar and b) prove to Gruden he will allow the coach to set the organizational structure and wouldn't change it on the fly, as the Niners have done too frequently of late. Despite those hurdles, San Francisco still seems like the best fit for Gruden.
5) The Chad Henne benching didn't really go as anyone expected, since he played most of the next game, against the Titans, got hurt, missed a game, and returned as the full-time starter last Sunday against Oakland. But it might just have achieved its desired effect. One reason the Dolphins felt comfortable pulling the plug on Henne is that they felt he had the mental toughness to handle it. That seems to have been proven. Another was that he'd get mental reps, and maybe that helped as he went 17 of 30 for 307 yards, two touchdowns and a pick in a 33-17 win over Oakland. But one perhaps less-intended benefit, that Henne raised himself speaking to the Miami media this week, has been that he's a more relaxed quarterback. "It's kind of opening up a new couple flames out there and just having fun with it, realizing that this isn't life or death right here and that it's a fun game to play," Henne said. Having a 186-yard breakthrough from a struggling running game didn't hurt either.
6) Josh McDaniels hasn't had an easy week, with the new videotaping scandal (far less serious than its predecessor) and a home loss to St. Louis warming that seat of his. Things won't get much easier, with a motivated Chiefs team waiting for the Broncos at Arrowhead, still smarting from the 20-point beatdown Denver handed them in November. Kansas City coach Todd Haley played it cool this week, after being pretty ticked back then about Denver's aggressive play (blitzing on defense, throwing out of max-protect on offense) with a big lead. But his players, who seem to be peaking after that embarrassing afternoon, aren't ignoring it. "It was a bad taste in our mouth," said quarterback Matt Cassel, the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for November, who's close with McDaniels from their New England days. "And again this is a division rival and a big game because it is our next game, but also because we are fighting for something and it is fun to be in December this time of year and fighting for something. Hopefully we will come ready to play come Sunday."
7) Had to be frustrating for the Chargers to lose Vincent Jackson, even if it was during a blowout win in Indianapolis, after waiting 11 weeks to get him on the field, but more help could be on the way this week for healing San Diego. Ryan Mathews got back to practice this week, and while the Chargers figure to be careful with his high ankle sprain, he could add an element to the San Diego offense in finishing games. Mathews, drafted 12th overall after a blockbuster deal by GM A.J. Smith to just 16 spots, has been disappointing and nicked a lot thus far, but he's also flashed potential that had many calling him the most complete back in the draft. He's averaging 4.4 yards a carry and has 15 catches and, when healthy, could have the benefit of fresh legs, with so many other first-year guys hitting the dreaded "rookie wall" right now. The best news for San Diego, really, is that what they get from Mathews is a bonus for a group that's already humming.
8) Time to believe that Brett Favre is really retiring? I actually think so, even if losing Brad Childress and gaining Leslie Frazier as head coach does light a little bit of a fire underneath him. Maybe I'm a sucker, but there's a part of Favre's demeanor that makes it seem like he regrets coming back, and I have to think that feeling is something he'll carry with him into the offseason. Does that mean we won't be parked on that front lawn in Hattiesburg next summer? Maybe not. And maybe this Viking team catches fire down the stretch and he thinks, "I want one more shot with these guys with coach Frazier in charge." But I doubt it.
9) Interesting stat dug up by John Mullin over at CSN Chicago: The Bears, under passing-game mastermind Mike Martz, threw 121 times and ran the ball 136 times in November. Stunning. And Chicago was 4-0 for the month. When I visited Halas Hall a few weeks ago, I asked Martz on the way off the practice field if he felt the need to play to the team's strengths on defense and special teams. "That's always the case, I think, don't you?" he said. "Absolutely. There's been years when you've fallen behind early and you can't be patient. When you get out in front of them. When I was in St. Louis, we liked to go fast, get out in front in the first half and put it away in the second half. We're playing so well on defense and special teams that it allows us to develop and mature on offense." Totally makes sense, but it's still strange to see this guy's offense operated in that fashion.
10) I understand defensive players' frustration with the rules. And it's been apparent in players I've talked to this week. Suggs actually brought it up when I asked if the Ravens defense has slipped. "With the rules, the 'hit laws,' it changes your aggressiveness," he explained. That's fine. But I feel like tossing in the fighting fines -- $25,000 penalties were assessed to Richard Seymour, Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan -- is wrong. I've heard people do it this week, and my stance is that it's apples and oranges. First, Johnson, Seymour and Finnegan already had some time served with an ejection, which can be harder on a team than a suspension (depending on when it occurs), because the club can't be ready for the absence. Second, the kind of injuries that result from helmet-leading hits are more far-reaching and serious than taking a punch to the back of the head, and that distinction must be made. Third, it's much harder for players to break hitting habits than simply choosing not to wind up and slug someone, so the message must be delivered strongly. Fistfights are fairly rare. There's been an epidemic with those hits, and I think that's why the league's acting the way it is.