Super Bowl LI will feature two organizations with wildly different histories and paths to this championship game; the New England Patriots are the league’s premier dynasty, while the Atlanta Falcons are perennial also-rans.
But there is one through line that bonds these teams together and it is evident in their leadership and roster construction.
Atlanta’s brass, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli, is a product of the Bill Belichick coaching-management tree. Dimitroff (college scouting) and Pioli (player personnel) spent seven years in New England together, building the Super Bowl teams of the early Brady-Belichick era. Then in 2008, Dimitroff took Atlanta’s vacant general manager position, and six years later Pioli joined Dimitroff as his associate in Atlanta, helping his old friend rebuild the franchise out of the fledgling Mike Smith era.
Three years later, Dimitroff and Pioli’s vision has bore fruit and has the Falcons one game away from their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. The only man standing in their way is their old boss and his well-oiled organization.
Ahead of the historic matchup, the Falcons‘ dynamic duo lauded Belichick and praised how he affected their decision-making and roster-building abilities.
“Learning from Bill and being around Scott, we look back at all these years and we think about how special it is to be around good people who believe in building teams the right way,” Dimitroff said during Tuesday’s Senior Bowl practice on NFL Network. “To have an opportunity to pair with my good friend and help build good football teams and have a head coach like Dan (Quinn), I keep saying how important that is.”
It was hiring Quinn in 2015, Dimitroff said, that, after years of diminishing returns, allowed the franchise to refocus its energies on building the roster the right way, which is to say finding the right players for the system.
“Dan brought his ideas in as well and joined with myself and Scott and our staffs and we did a really good job of bringing the personnel staff and the coaching staff together and Dan was really good about disseminating the right information,” Dimitroff explained. “Obviously, that happened a lot in New England. That was a big, important thing for us. So it was music to our ears that we had a head coach coming in to be interested in doing such.”
“When Dan came in, he was crystal clear about what he wanted and each of his assistant coaches were crystal clear on what they wanted, each position what to look for,” Pioli added Tuesday. “The interesting thing is Thomas and I come from a background where we were looking stylistically for a completely different type of player; we come from two-gap systems, from bigger stronger guys. But once that was identified, we went to work, we rewrote a lot of the things we scouted.
“And looking at the linebackers that we have in De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones is exactly what you’re talking about with coaches wanting speed but length also. One of the things that Thomas and I have always been in step on is the fact there’s time speed and there’s playing speed and the players that we find are guys that have pure speed, but also have playing speed and that’s really helped.”
Dimitroff and Pioli weren’t the only two Patriot types to laud their roster’s speed on defense on Tuesday. The Hoodie himself chimed in during a conference call earlier in the day, expressing how impressed he was with Atlanta’s quickness.
“I’d say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have. They have a lot of fast guys,” Belichick told reporters. “Defensively they close up space very quickly. Their linebackers run well. Their defensive line, although they have a couple of big, strong, physical guys in there, overall they have usually nine or 10 players on the field that I would say are fast. They’re either as fast or faster than probably what the average speed of their position is in the league.
“They’re an impressive team to watch. They do a lot of things really well, but they look like they’re faster than almost every team they play.”
Speed is all well and good, but what sets apart fast teams and effective teams is something Belichick hinted at and Dimitroff explicated in his interview, something that defines the Patriot, and now the Falcon, Way.
“One of the things that Scott had mentioned here, the idea of speed, but the idea of urgency is a really big important part of our defense,” the Falcons general manager concluded. “It’s about flying to the ball, being urgent in what you do, and I think Dan lives that and our coaching staff lives that. It’s easy to scout those kind of players. You know if you’re not an urgent football player, it’s going to be very tough to stay on this football team.”
In the same vein of “Do your job”, being urgent in what you do emphasizes an intense will to finish, a determination that has been the hallmark of Atlanta’s steadily improving defense. Whether it’s due more to Quinn’s clear-eyed direction or Dimitroff and Pioli’s execution, the Falcons have built a deep roster of emerging, urgent talent.
Their defense is led by Campbell, Jones, NFL sack leader Vic Beasley, cornerback Jalen Collins and first-round safety Keanu Neal, all five of whom have been drafted in the last two years under the triumvirate’s watch.
In other words, Belichick would be proud of his former associates — building a roster with the right players — so proud he’ll likely take extra pleasure in beating them at his own game two Sundays from now.