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All the right moves
Falcons' youthful GM Dimitroff builds winning design

FLOWERY BRANCH - Anyone who wants Thomas Dimitroff to respond to suggestions he's an NFL version of cartoon 'Boy Genius' Jimmy Neutron can forget it.

Yes, the Atlanta Falcons' first-time general manager looked like an undersized camp counselor as he paced the practice fields last summer. Spiked hair rose above a sun visor that Dimitroff tucked just above the top of his mirror shades. He wore a team-issued T-shirt, low-cut black socks, all-terrain shoes and baggy shorts.

Even so early in his regime, though, the 42-year-old Dimitroff had laid the foundation for a staggering turnaround in Atlanta.

'Just trying to stay as comfortable and as cool as possible,' Dimitroff said in the oppressive heat of late July. 'It's cooking out here.'

And his team is cooking as the playoffs arrive.

Coming off a 4-12 season that included the federal imprisonment of quarterback Michael Vick and coach Bobby Petrino's embarrassing resignation with three games to go, the Falcons seemed headed for two or three rebuilding years before they could seriously compete.

Instead, Dimitroff's hiring last January signaled the start of something special. He advised owner Arthur Blank to hire Mike Smith as head coach and to sign free agent running back Michael Turner to a $34.5 million contract.

A potential watershed decision was made in late April when the Falcons used the No. 3 overall draft pick to replace Vick with Matt Ryan.

Atlanta is now 10-5 and guaranteed an NFC playoff spot. Turner, second in league in yards rushing, and Roddy White, second in yards receiving, are Pro Bowl selections. Ryan, who took every snap at quarterback, and defensive end John Abraham, with a career-high 161/2 sacks, are alternates.

'It seemed like a monumental task in some respects, and it still does in others,' Dimitroff said last Friday. 'But it's been very satisfying to see that all the time we committed put a feather in everyone's cap as far as a collaborative effort from our entire staff.'

Dimitroff wasn't interested in directing attention to himself when asked about the Falcons' success. He had only 12 minutes to speak with a reporter because Atlanta scouts were continuing plans to break down film of college bowls and to cover all-star games.

'We've had our first set of draft meetings so we can move ahead to bracketing in round-table discussions,' Dimitroff said. 'There's a lot of work to do.'

Added Smith, whose attention is nearly entirely focused on helping the Falcons beat St. Louis (2-13) on Sunday, Dimitroff's preparation is impressive.

'I had an opportunity to look at some of the point-of-attack tapes of some of the prospects,' Smith said. 'At Thomas' direction, he's keeping me up to date with what's going on. It's a year-round process. It's not all Xs and Os. It's looking at the potential free-agent class. It's looking at the draft class. It's something we have to always look at, and at the same time we have to be prepared for our upcoming opponent.'

Dimitroff came by his passion for scouting honestly. His father, Tom Dimitroff, was a former Boston Patriots player who began an NFL scouting career after coaching in high school, college and the pros.

Thomas Dimitroff took his first official job in 1990 as a scouting coordinator for Saskatchewan of the CFL. He debuted in the NFL four years later with Detroit; his dad passed away in '96. From 1998 and through the 2001 season, Dimitroff worked in a similar capacity as a college scout for Cleveland.

He worked through last December for New England, spending his final five years as director of college scouting. The Patriots won two Super Bowls during Dimitroff's tenure and last year became the league's first team to finish a regular season 16-0.

'There's no question that we've tried to emulate here what the New England organization has done in terms of making every decision and move about improving their team,' Dimitroff said. 'Coach (Bill) Belichick and (vice president) Scott Pioli have built a culture that's all about the sum of the parts.'

Though Dimitroff seemed a long shot to get the Falcons job, the call he received from Blank's representatives 11 months ago came as little surprise.

'By way of association, I knew I might get an opportunity over the next few years,' he said. 'I wouldn't say I was surprised, but I was excited about the opportunity, so I just decided to swing for the fence.'

With a victory Sunday over St. Louis (2-13) and loss by Carolina at New Orleans, the Falcons will become NFC South champions and earn a No. 2 playoff seed.

Because he and Dimitroff have worked so meticulously to ensure that details are understood and communicated among players, coaches and scouts, Smith believes Atlanta's winning formula could pay off long-term.

'The other thing Thomas is so good at is he's such a forward-thinking individual,' Smith said. 'He has a good feel for the pro side of it as well as the college side and I think as we make our long-term plans it's very, very important to have that forward thinking and have that evaluation not only of the pro side but of the college side as well.'

Maybe one day, Dimitroff will even look the part.