Coaching & Development | Oct 16, 2015
The Falcons GM takes us through the art of team building and talent evaluation.

Thomas Dimitroff, the General Manager of the Atlanta Falcons joined the franchise in 2008 and has set about establishing a side that can challenge the very best. Dimitroff is renowned for his dynamic drafting and philosophical approach to building a team. Performance caught up with Sporting New’s 2010 Executive of the Year to find out what building a team entails when only the very best will do.

On the Atlanta Falcons philosophy…

One of the things I am very proud of as a general manager, and this comes from our owner and our chairman is that it is a values based organisation along with being a needs based organisation as per requiring talent. Meaning we are very conscious of having the right locker room, the right chemistry to fit in with what we believe is very important to develop a proper organisation and that is making sure that relationships are good, making sure that players are not only talented on the field but talented and proper off the field because they represent our entire organisation.

A phrase I use time and again that I believe that the core of the team needs to be positive passionate and persevering players. Not only players, coaches and administrators. It’s very important for us to meet with these players and discern where they are from a personal stand point, through interviewing, through psychological tests, as well as seeing them on the field in their environment to see how they function when things aren’t always right and how they adapt and how they adjust. We all know the importance of being able to adapt and the importance of adjusting when things are off. That’s one of the things that we look for when we are dealing with our player interviews and assessment. I also have a real desire to make sure that we have a good youthful, passionate and fiery team and always a desire to improve. The stale individual who has no desire to learn and grow, the individual who thinks they have it all figured out, I don’t care if they’re a hall of famer or considered a great coach, I have no desire for them to be in our organisation I don’t think it sets the right tone.

On scouting and player recruitment at the Atlanta Falcons…

We have approximately 20 people in our scouting department. We have the country broken down into areas, regions and then a national set up, with myself and our personal directors over the very top of the organisation travelling all over the country or even the world if we are interested in a certain player.

We start our season off with close to 4,000 prospects and obviously that has to be whittled down for someone in my position. I rely on our personnel staff heavily to whittle down our draft board so then in the end I am probably meeting with 300+ players to make decisions about what we are doing. We are very rigorous as far as our approach. We want to make sure that we have all hands on deck to make sure we have all had a feeling about the players we are potentially looking to sign. Our organisation is very collaborative. I believe in the people we have, I believe in their opinions, we aren’t always going to agree. I also believe in my position and, in the NFL, it’s not about one omnipotent GM pounding the table about a player, the opposition or a policy, it’s about making sure that I listen to everyone and draw my conclusions from all the research. I take pride in that we involve not only the personal department, but also the coaching department because this is about working together. Scouts and coaches, their relationship, their interaction and the information we share is very important to make sure that as a personnel department, we are never forcing talent on our coaching staff. It’s one of the major mistakes that is made in our league, when there’s a disconnect between coaching and personnel.

On evaluating talent…

They have to have a very open mind. A good talent evaluator understands the importance of our league being a very ‘match up’ league [Ed: players engaged in 1-on-1 match ups across the field]. That means they have to have a very good eye for understanding movement, athleticism and ability to match players on the field. A good evaluator has a strong understanding of all of those elements when they are looking at potential talent. On the other hand a less capable evaluator is someone who becomes trait infatuated. What I mean by that is if a scout is so hung up on a player having a big heart and being an overachieving tough guy, they may overlook an athletes who may not be oozing with that toughness and fight but they have a lot of talent, athleticism and movement ability. I think that happens too often. Someone who evaluates that way can overlook a lot of players. It’s also the talent evaluator who doesn’t have an open enough mind to understand that in today’s world generations are very different than they were, twenty or thirty years ago. An evaluator in today’s NFL has to be very open to understanding that Gen Y and millennials are very different and they react to things differently they are coached differently, they adapt differently. If we are not open enough as evaluators to see that then we can categorize players as not our type and we may end up passing up some great players. Ideally we want the all encompassed evaluator. We want the guy who is open, who understands evaluating the athleticism and the movement but also the intelligence of a player. We train all our evaluating staff to be as well rounded as possible.

On talent, character and team players…

I’m a huge believer in making sure your character and your values are in check before we bring you in as a player. It’s something that I learned from New England and it’s about believing you can win with very good football players they don’t always have to be the best talent, but they are very good footballers on the field, and they have a very good core value about themselves as well. That will never ever be overwritten by excessive talent.

The basic tenants of a team player are huge with us. The last thing we want to do is bring in someone who is very talented and separates themselves from the rest of the group. We have probably done that once or twice in our quest to get better and it has always come back to bite us. It’s not something that we believe in but every once in a while an organisation is tempted to go in that direction as they feel they have a strong locker room and a strong organisation. What I’ve found is whenever we have deviated from strong characters and team players, the players we brought in that are slightly wayward stand out like a sore thumb and the team quickly realizes how different they are from the rest. It’s amazing how much angst there is when a player on the field and in the dressing possesses traits that everyone else doesn’t.

On environment and retaining talent…

We have always been mindful of creating what we feel to be a good environment. An environment of people wanting to come and wanting to play for us. An environment where they understand that this is about working extremely hard but it’s also about the development journey and making sure the journey is enjoyable. We do not want our organization to be drudgery. We still want people to have fun, we understand how creative people can be when enjoying what they are doing.  But doesn’t mean people are running down the halls clicking their feet like leprechauns, it’s about making sure people understand about keeping life in perspective. I believe our coach has a really good understanding about that and from a management standpoint I do so we are creating that environment. I’ve always tried to do as much as I can and at times when it’s tough it can be challenging to keep that environment so peaceful and together and think this is the time where you have to be more intuitive to that.

His biggest recruiting success…

Our biggest hit was in 2008 and drafting Matt Ryan. Every year he learns and grows and he is like a sponge as far as improving his talents and his leadership each year and understanding what needs to change each season. This is his seventh year, and to me he is the combination of someone who has really strong focus and leadership ability, but also very talented on the field. He is also very mindful and adept in the community. He is the face of our franchise and when you got out to pick your face you hope they can only be a part of what Matt Ryan is.

He is aware of what’s going on around him. In year 1 he led very differently to how he leads now and I would say it was incremental, he didn’t start pounding his chest, telling everyone that he was the quarterback, he earned the respect. When we first started interviewing him I could tell that he had that about him. He played at Boston College, a good football program but not an elite football program, he had a roster that didn’t boast too many high profile stars, but he navigated it very well and Matt is a very adept navigator. He takes what he is given and uses it to excel.

There was an element of human humbleness and cutting aggression and he showed a good balance. The last thing you want is QB to come in that is all about himself. He may be oozing with confidence and cockiness but doesn’t navigate the organisation as we would expect.

His biggest recruiting mistakes…

The biggest miss I feel we have had in the 7 years I’ve been here is going back to deviating from the right values at the organisation. When we were desperate for a position we thought we could deal with this particular player’s personality. He stood out like a sore thumb. The team saw it, the administration saw it, and our owner saw it and we ended up cutting him after a year and a half. He was a sound enough guy but he did not fit in with our organisation and he had certain traits that frustrated our coaching staff. In the end I had to admit our ultimate mistake and release this guy in the middle of the season.

It’s so important making sure you’re not deviating from your organisational values because we think we can force a wayward soul into an organization. We can get the most production out of him and he’ll be okay and we’ll just deal with issues. I don’t think you can ever just deal with issues. I think if the issue is there it becomes a real drain on an organization and in this case a drain on a coaching staff and a distraction to the team. Ultimately we’re all trying to eliminate the distraction and we want to eliminate every distraction from our coaching staff. Given another opportunity I would have learned about our coaching staff’s personality characteristics and coaching characteristics.

As a general manager I look at our coaching staff when we’re trying to acquire a player and how they will deal with the personality, traits and quirks of that player. I have really good grasp on [Head Coach] Mike Smith and I have a really good partnership with him, but down the line as well to a coordinator or a position coach to make sure they can also deal with the player we’re acquiring. We all know we can bring in this shiny new product who hopefully is going to produce for us but if their character traits are not what we expect then we have no chance of that individual being successful. It’s the importance of middle management, our coaches and our assistant coaches, understanding what they are, how they thrive, who they can thrive with before we decide to invest a lot of money acquiring talent. We can look for the smartest person from Oxford or Harvard and they may be brilliant but if there is not a fit and they don’t buy into the team ethos, then the chance of them producing at the level we want is very limited. So when you’re bringing someone in, everyone must understand what they’re getting. That’s my responsibility, and I don’t think I did a good job last time with this situation. I didn’t look at the whole organization, it was just about needing a player for that position, and from hell and high water we were going to get that position taken care of.

On balancing a scouting department…

It’s good to have a wide range of mix in your scouting department, you can have the older, ‘wiley’ crusty scout, versus the young. We don’t have a lot of those right now, quite honestly we was devoid of those scouts and this year we brought back a couple of those guys that have a lot more experience to keep balance in our scouting staff and that is an important part, putting together a group of individuals to evaluate talent within your organization that you have that understanding and also an open minded group, you have to have that older individual who is open to listen to the younger group and a younger group who understands and respects the history and the knowledge of some of our older scouts.

On the next frontiers of performance in the NFL…

An area I think is going to be very interesting is where we are from a cognitive and neuro standpoint, the idea of neuroplasticity, training the brain and simulation. Pre-game cognitive warm-ups is something that we’re very interested in right now and our Quarterback is. Instead of the first time he really forces his brain to activate being under the centre in what we call the red zone, 20 yards in when mayhem is happening, the next wave is making sure that he’s cognitively prepped through different instruments. We have a number of companies that we deal with and Matt has got one that he’s really dialled in with. He preps two times before a game, so he might go in 15 or 20 minutes before he goes out on the field to go through some of his tracking exercises and then he’ll come back in, and before he goes back out on the field, he’ll continue to warm his brain up so that he has not only done his physical warm-up, he’s also ready mentally. Forever we’ve believed in doing our movement prep, now we’re realising that instead of just warming our bodies up we should warm our brains up. Let’s make our brain expand, let’s truly use the neuroplasticity element so that we’re that much more cognitively ready when we get out on the field. That is going to be the next wave, the true focus on the brain activity and the brain science of this game. I’m quite interested in some of the products. For instance, Matt’s doing something right now with object. We’re superimposing plays behind this product so our Quarterback is not only available to track he’s also able to assess what’s on the field and he’s able to take his cognitive depth even further. It’s a really interesting process to see it happening.

On the advice he’d give himself on his first day with the Atlanta Falcons…

1) The importance of always working on your partnerships at the top. A successful organisation has to have a good partnership at the top.

2) Stay true to your beliefs and intuition. If you are swayed to make a decision that you don’t agree with to please other people, it doesn’t work. Once in a while you’ll get a hit on that but most of the time you won’t, and over time you will be judged for it

3) The importance of understanding all the personality traits of those that are working around you. You need to have a really good understanding of the people who have a vested interest in the organisation, from coaches to shareholders.

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