I spent some time Friday with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn, asking about their approach in free agency this offseason. The team has come under some criticism for not pursuing any high-level free agents, filling needs with more modestly priced players.
So what was the plan going into this offseason?
DAN QUINN: The plan is to compete at everything we’re doing. That’s the evaluation of players, looking at the roster and finding out how we can do things better. That’s from here on — it has nothing to do with what happened before. That’s for all of us. If we’re going to have the best offseason, who controls that? You do.
THOMAS DIMITROFF: Dan’s main plan coming in here was having a building that worked very well together, coaches and personnel, preventing any types of silos that may develop, where there’s this clean communication line. For Dan and his coaches to be able to communicate with myself, Scott and the personnel staff as far what we’re looking for is vital.
How has the decision-making process worked?
QUINN: One of my pet peeves in pro football is when you hear, ‘They saw it this way and the scouts see it this way.’ At what point can we just say, ‘This is the way the Falcons see it’? Not to say we don’t have a difference of opinion. There’s plenty of times we don’t see guys the same way. So we’re like, ‘Let’s put the tape on again and watch him.’ That was the biggest thing for me: create an environment where it was one connected group. Because it’s not normal in some (places). There’s that side and this side and there’s a divider. I saw it happen with Pete (Carroll) and John (Schneider) and that’s where it came alive for me.”
When you first turned on the film here, what did you determine you needed to be done?
QUINN: Speed is always something that I covet, and it’s also the type and attitude that you play with. There’s special effort and good effort. Special doesn’t necessarily mean your team is faster than everybody. It’s can you play freely to where the scheme allows you to go at max speed. Some schemes are a lot of checks and things at the line of scrimmage. That’s good for some people. I just do the best to train the players, ‘How can we play our fastest?’ There can’t be so many checks and things and alerts on a player so that you can’t just let it go and rip.
DIMITROFF: Dan had a plan from the moment he came in here about playing faster, and for me it was one of the aha moments. That’s what this team needs now – let the players be the athletes they are and play to the best of their ability.
QUINN: That’s one of the things I learned from Pete. What’s the unique stuff a guy has and let’s go about featuring it. So if a guy is a terrific outside rusher but he struggles playing inside against a tight end, let’s make sure we put him in the positions where he can do best. We had some unique guys in the secondary in Seattle. Kam Chancellor was a really physical down safety, so let’s play him down a lot. We had corners who are long, so we played them on the line of scrimmage a lot. If they didn’t have that length, we wouldn’t have played that style. And when you play a lot of man to man and a lot of zone, you better have linebackers who can run. Because when they check down, they’re going to complete passes when you play zone, you better bring it when you go to tackle. We call it the kill zone.
Did either of you have anything in mind as to how much this roster needs to turn over?
QUINN: I didn’t. The first year in Seattle they turned over a ridiculous number of players. (Seattle had 284 roster transactions in 2010 and more than 500 in the first two years under Carroll.) It was just a continuing process to see who had the makeup of stuff. I didn’t feel that way when I came here. I didn’t have a great sense of the roster. I was honest with that in my assessment when Thomas and Arthur (Blank) and Rich (McKay) during the interview process. They would ask, ‘How well do you know the team?’ I said, ‘I don’t.’ My obligation was to Seattle. It wouldn’t be fair to them if I was there coaching and I was thinking about the Falcons’ roster. So that was my first couple of weeks here. I had to get up to speed. I didn’t come in with a per-conceived notion of, ‘Lets change 25.’
DIMTIROFF: I was relying on Dan and his staff to determine how they felt about this roster. The wild importance was Q and his staff being extremely clear what they were looking for. It was vital for us to work together. Dan was great. He brought in his position coaches and his coordinators on both sides of the ball and we had basically symposiums on the style of football we would be playing, relatively speaking from a scheme standpoint. I can’t tell you how important that was for us, to have clarity.
QUINN: If we’re going to be connected, we better be speaking the same language.
On average, how much do teams turn over year to year?
DIMITROFF: I think we’ve determined it’s almost 20 percent. But even without a coaching change, we would’ve had significant change and adjustments to this roster from last year.
More than 20 percent?
DIMITROFF: It’s hard to say. Probably.
Dan spoke earlier about the personnel selection process. How has it worked with you and Scott Pioli?
DIMITROFF: As I’ve said, Scott is our assistant general manager who has assumed responsibilities to run the day-to-day processes of our personnel department, along with (director of player personnel) Lionel Vital and our two other directors, DeJuan Polk on the pro side and Steve Sabo on the college side. They all work together to make sure the processes of scouting are intact. Scott and I communicate every day, as Q does with his coaching staff every day. It’s a very interactive building. The energy in this building is upbeat.
QUINN: One thing I’ve noticed with Scott and DeJuan and Lionel and Steve is their role is totally one of support. You can tell when a guy is totally for you. I’ve sensed that from these guys. They’re like assistant coaches for me, or Thomas’s assistant coaches or coordinators. And a scout’s job is not just to say, ‘That’s a good idea.’ We don’t want yes men. He needs to tell the truth.
DIMITROFF: I know you keep coming back to what Scott’s role is. What Scott has been able to do, because he has such expertise in the processes of managing a personnel department, is it allows me to roll my sleeves down a little bit. Instead of being a general manager and personnel director, which too often guys in my position do because they come from that (scouting) background, it allows me to step back and look at things from a big picture perspective and work with Dan on a lot of things and not worry about the day-to-day processes in the personnel department.
Did you need to step back?
DIMITROFF: It’s an evolution. Just as coaches evolve, I believe I’m evolving as an executive. When you have Scott and Lionel Vital and Steve Sabo and DeJuan Polk as directors, it’s vital to continue to let people grow, and respectfully and properly delegate.
I’m sure you’re both aware of the skepticism and/or criticism regarding the team’s offseason signings so far. What’s your response?
QUINN: Again, I’m not concerned about winning free agency. What’s best for our team is having the right group of guys and how they can best connect and how hard they play for each other. Specifically, what can we have a guy do on our team? All these guys we’re adding, that’s just it. We’re not asking them to do something different. So I’m not too concerned about the outside.
Can you understand the criticism?
DIMITROFF: No, not necessarily. There are a lot of really good football players in this league who don’t carry an outrageous price tag. We spent a lot of time evaluating the players we acquired and we feel they can be nice solid contributors to Dan’s schemes. They also have to have the makeup and traits that we’re looking for – competitiveness, toughness, passion and fire for the game. We spent a lot more time evaluating these players than people outside this building and we feel very confident about our approach.
What don’t people realize?
QUINN: Lots of stuff. I can’t wait for people to see how we play. There’s a real style and attitude about how we’re going to play. It’s not about the one guy. It’s not about pass rusher, it’s pass rush. It’s not done with one man, it’s done with the style and attitude that we play to affect the quarterback. And (critics) need to wait a while, too. It’s still March.
DIMITROFF: By the way, we have the eighth overall pick. Everyone needs to keep that in perspective. We have the whole other side of team building in the next couple of months.
QUINN: There’s a lot of good players here I can’t wait to get started with. It’s one of the most fun things about coaching, to have a vision of what a player can do and pull it out of them. Sometimes it’s even greater than what they thought they could do. There’s a lot of guys here we need to get going on.
Was it a disappointment not getting Derrick Morgan?
DIMITROFF: We researched all pass rushers and linebackers in this free agency class. We looked at them a great deal.
DIMITROFF: We were diligent about how we were approaching this free agency class.
Haha. OK, moving on. Do you feel good about how things have gone?
QUINN: Yeah. Each step has been the first time Thomas and I have done this together. We’re evaluating how we’re doing this, too.
DIMITROFF: We diligently researched everyone in this free agency class and we’re very happy with our decisions. We’re happy with what we decided on because it’s what we were looking for in our approach to build this team together.
Seattle went 7-9 the first two years under Carroll and Schneider. Are we looking at that kind of slow process with the Falcons?
QUINN: We don’t even need to look that far ahead. Honestly, we’re trying to kick butt in this part of our world right now. On April 6 when the guys are here, I want to max out Phase I and then go into Phase II and kick butt in OTAs and have the best training camp we’ve ever had. But for me, to look that far out, there’s too much to do.