Dimitroff is classic example of why teams should hire from winning organizations

On January 13, 2008, was officially the day the Atlanta Falcons turned their misfortunes around. No, that wasn’t the day they drafted Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan (that was April 26, 2008) or the date they signed free agent Michael Turner (March 2).

January 13, 2008 was the day the Falcons hired former Patriots’ director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff to be their next general manager. Without Dimitroff, there might not have been a Matt Ryan, Michael Turner or Mike Smith, who recently won the NFL’s AP Coach of the Year Award.

On Wednesday, Dimitroff was named Sporting News magazine’s NFL Executive of the Year – and for good reason. Not only was he responsible for hiring Smith, signing Turner and drafting Ryan, but he was also behind trading overrated cornerback DeAngelo Hall to Oakland, releasing aging veterans Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman and Warrick Dunn, as well as selecting Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, Chevis Jackson, Harry Douglas and Kroy Biermann in last year’s draft, all of whom were major contributors as rookies in 2008.

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Has Matt Ryan finally hit the rookie wall?

Matt RyanThe Atlanta Falcons might be the story of the year in the NFL this season and Matt Ryan is a big reason why. But has the first-year quarterback finally hit the preverbal rookie wall?

Ryan was not particularly sharp in the Falcons’ last three regular season games, completing just 38 of 68 (55%) of his pass attempts for 500 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. In Atlanta’s 31-27 win over the Rams on Sunday, the rookie was just 10 of 21 passing for 160 yards and two interceptions.

A telltale sign that the Falcons might be playing things more cautiously with Ryan was apparent on their game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Down 27-24 with just under seven minutes remaining in the game, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey called runs on five of the six plays on the drive. Jerious Norwood then capped the drive off with a 45-yard touchdown run.

I love Ryan; I’ve waxed poetically about his accomplishments all season. And I don’t want to take anything away from him because what he’s been able to accomplish this year has been amazing. Some of the throws he’s made have been beyond impressive (see the Denver game for examples of what I’m talking about) and to play all 16 games as a rookie is nothing short of extraordinary. He’s also led a team that was 4-12 a year ago to an 11-5 record and the playoffs, and he’s even running the no-huddle offense with apparent ease.

That said, he seems to be making more rookie mistakes now than he did in the beginning of the season and maybe that’s because the Falcons are trusting him more with the offense and are opening up the playbook. But some of his throws in the second half Sunday against the Rams had nothing to do with the plays being called – they were just bad decisions. (Especially his second interception of the day, which was thrown off his back foot.)

I hope Ryan dazzles in his first playoff game in Arizona next week. He’s truly a special player and he’s great for the NFL. I just hope that rookie wall isn’t making an appearance at the most important point in his season.

Saints find offensive balance, keep postseason hopes alive

Reggie BushNew Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was rightfully criticized throughout the week for not maintaining enough offensive balance this season. While the Saints statistically rank as the best offense in the league, they entered Sunday’s game against the Falcons as a 6-6 team with slim playoff hopes. No offense – not even the best in the league – can win consistently if they can’t run the ball. But the Saints rushed for 184 yards and beat division rival Atlanta 29-25 on Sunday.

Their running game was essentially the key because it opened everything up for Drew Brees and the passing game. Outside of the opening drive of the first quarter and most of the third, the Falcons’ defense looked befuddled at what Payton was throwing at them. They had no answer for New Orleans’ offense and allowed Pierre Thomas to rumble for 102 yards on just 16 carries. If Payton can keep himself from going Andy Reid on everybody, the Saints are going to be tough to beat the rest of the way.

For the Falcons, their loss cannot be placed on rookie Matt Ryan (24 of 33 for 315 yards, 1 TD) and the offense. Ryan was unbelievable and got a ton of help from Roddy White (10 catches, 164 yards) and Michael Jenkins (5 catches, 69 yards), who made the rookie quarterback look good on a couple of errant passes. Outside of a rookie mistake on an interception thrown in the first quarter, Ryan was damn near perfect and constantly kept drives alive with pinpoint passes.

The Falcons really put themselves in a hole with this loss, however. At 8-5, they’re still very much alive in the playoff race, but they host a tough Buccaneers team next week and then travel to Minnesota before finishing with the hapless Rams. They’ll have to win at least two of their next three games to make the playoffs, so a win over the Saints could have gone a long way.

We’ll see what Ryan and the young Falcons are made of over these next three weeks.

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