If 2007 was the year of near perfection, 2008 was the year of the turnaround.
The Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, and Baltimore Ravens made dramatic improvement over last season. They did so with rookie coaches, all of whom have received their share of accolades. Two of the teams, Atlanta and Baltimore, did so with rookie quarterbacks, who also have drawn their share of praise.
But for every touchdown pass that Matt Ryan has thrown since the Atlanta Falcons made him with the third overall pick of the draft or ageless Brett Favre has completed since the New York Jets traded for him last August, there are others away from the field and the sidelines that also deserve to take a bow.
Now, it's time to recognize the first-year general managers and the impressive work of other NFL executives, some for enhancing teams that were already strong.
Putting together a formidable roster requires deft work in the draft room and in free agency, and we've ranked the league's 10 best executives for how they've performed in those areas:
1. Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons general manager
Considering the toxic messes that were left to clean up (Michael Vick's dog-fighting crimes and Bobby Petrino's less-than-one-and-done season), Dimitroff was nothing short of a miracle-worker. Ryan gets the headlines, but several others in Atlanta's 2008 draft class have paid off handsomely as well. Michael Turner is one of the all-time great free-agent signings. Rookie coach Mike Smith also deserves plenty of credit for the Falcons' remarkable turnaround, along with owner Arthur Blank for getting it right this time with his hires at the top.
2. Jeff Ireland, Dolphins general manager
Ireland is another rookie who has had a significant role in another incredible turnaround. Of course, you can't discuss what has happened to the Dolphins without mentioning the NFL's renowned fixer, Bill Parcells, who as executive vice president of football operations hired Ireland and rookie coach Tony Sparano from Dallas to lead the overhaul of the league's 2007 laughingstock. They got rid of a losing culture by changing more than half the roster, they used the draft's top pick on cornerstone left tackle Jake Long, and had the good fortune of having Chad Pennington fall into their collective lap after the Jets sent him packing to make room for Favre. Collectively, the moves helped Miami win the AFC East a year after winning just one game.
3. Mike Reinfeldt, Titans executive vice president / general manager
In a season where rookie running backs are making big contributions throughout the league, Reinfeldt found one of the best in Chris Johnson, who wasn't as highly touted as some of the others. The Titans locked up the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed largely on the strength of the explosiveness that Johnson brings to their ground attack. They are not flashy. They rely on being smart and sound, which is exactly the type of roster Reinfeldt and coach Jeff Fisher set out to assemble. Offensive guard Jake Scott and tight end Alge Crumpler are among the veterans who were added with that in mind.
4. Ozzie Newsome, Ravens executive vice president / general manager
It's one thing to use a first-round choice on a quarterback such as Ryan, who starred at Boston College. When the Ravens did the same with Joe Flacco, from Delaware, they subjected themselves to all sorts of second-guessing. But give Newsome and his scouting staff credit for projecting that Flacco would successfully make the massive competitive leap to the NFL. They found another gem in running back Ray Rice. Rookie coach John Harbaugh has done a terrific job of meshing the newcomers with the many talented players already in place, especially on defense, to allow the Ravens to make the playoffs and rebound from the dreary end to the Brian Billick era.
5. Jerry Reese, Giants senior vice president / general manager
His best move was the addition-by-subtraction trade of high-maintenance tight end Jeremy Shockey to the Saints. By landing a second-round draft pick, the Giants did better than merely dumping a problem on another team. Reese also merits props for having the pieces in place (Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka) to not merely fill two gaping defensive-line holes from the Super Bowl-winning team (retired Michael Strahan and injured Osi Umenyiora), but actually make the unit stronger. With another solid draft, Reese has done his part to help the Giants make a serious run for back-to-back Vince Lombardi trophies.
6. Scott Pioli, Patriots vice president of player personnel
He did pretty much everything necessary to save the Patriots' 2008 season by using the 230th pick of the 2005 draft on Matt Cassel. Although Cassel never started at USC, Pioli saw something in him that was at least worth a seventh-round choice. Four seasons later, after 2000-sixth-round-pick-turned-mega-star Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury, the rest of us saw it, too. Linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Patriots' 2008 first-rounder, could be a unanimous pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Even having missed the playoffs, Bill Belichick did arguably the best coaching job of his career, but it wouldn't be working out nearly as well without the other half of the league's brightest decision-making tandem.
7. Mike Tannenbaum, Jets general manager
The one unfortunate part about the Jets' trading with Green Bay for Favre is that it overshadowed several earlier moves that, had they not been made, would very likely have reduced the impact of the legendary ex-Packer. Tannenbaum worked from the inside out in acquiring nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who has been the team's most dominant player, and signing offensive guard Alan Faneca and tackle Damien Woody. Fullback Tony Richardson did his share to help open holes for Thomas Jones as well. First-round draft pick Vernon Gholston didn't make the splash he was expected to make on the defensive front, but enough other newcomers, such as Calvin Pace, did their share to help put some teeth into the pass rush. Tannenbaum's latest move was to fire coach Eric Mangini on Monday. His next move could determine if there will be any payoff to all the moves he made in the past year.
8. Marty Hurney, Panthers general manager
Strong drafting is a big reason the Panthers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. First-rounder Jonathan Stewart is another of the high-impact running backs from the Class of '08. Jeff Otah, another first-rounder, has been an imposing force at offensive tackle. Third-rounder Charles Godfrey has established himself as a playmaker at safety. Getting veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad back into the fold was among several other solid moves made by Hurney and coach John Fox.
9. Rod Graves, Cardinals general manager
Sure, the Cardinals benefitted greatly from playing in a horrendous division. But Graves deserves credit for stocking the roster with key contributors, including linebacker Clark Haggans and defensive end Travis LaBoy. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Cardinals' first-round pick, has been solid. One of Graves' better finds was fifth-round draft choice Tim Hightower, who wound up replacing Edgerrin James as the starting running back. And where would the Cardinals be if they didn't hang onto Kurt Warner and wound up giving the starting quarterback job to Matt Leinart just because of his first-round status?
10. Kevin Colbert, Steelers director of football operations
He didn't have to do much, because most of the key pieces were in place for the Steelers to make another Super Bowl run. When injuries hit hard at running back, Mewelde Moore was there to make a solid contribution as a runner and a receiver. The Steelers also had a replacement ready after the free-agency departure of Clark Haggans. LaMarr Woodley, a second-round draft pick last year, was ready to step in and combine with James Harrison to become the most prolific sacking duo in franchise history. The one negative that can't be ignored, however, is the porous offensive line, which could prevent the Steelers from a second Super Bowl win in four seasons.