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The Falcons’ “marginal gains” have left them behind the pack

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Pronounced “fal-con”

Buffalo Bills v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is an avid cycler. In an interview with the Ringer in 2017, he talked about how he drew inspiration from Team Sky (now Team Ineos), the sport’s dominant team.

Team Sky had become the best cycling team in the world almost overnight through what it claimed were a series of “marginal gains.” Created in 2010 they won their first race that year and won their first the Tour de France in 2012, which they’ve won every year since except for 2014. As the team leader, Sir Dave Brailsford, explained to the Harvard Business Review, their “marginal gains” approach included things like painting the floors white to spot dust accumulation and having everyone wash their hands a lot to prevent diseases from spreading. The Falcons followed this mantra:

The takeaway for the Falcons? The very tiny things you discover on a practice field will one day add up and become a very big thing.

“We use the term ‘1 percent better,’” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn. The team’s goal is essentially the same one that’s espoused by Brailsford: get 1 percent better at everything and it will add up to a huge gain.

Marginal gains do add up and doing things like washing your hands is a good idea. But to make a team skyrocket to the top of the pyramid seems a little suspicious.

If you know anything about cycling, which is to say if you know that it exists, you know that the sport is plagued by cheating.

So it should come as no surprise that Team Sky cheated. Last year an investigation by the British government found that Team Sky “crossed an ethical line” by using drugs that are allowed for legitimate medical reasons as performance enhancing drugs. They are frauds.

When I read or hear about Thomas Dimitroff I usually think about him drawing inspiration from Team Sky, and living in Atlanta I read and hear about him fairly often. Thomas Dimitroff got conned in a game played by con men. He really should have known better, but then Dimitroff and his team are a bit of a fraud.

Not entirely a fraud though. Until he and Matt Ryan arrived in 2008, the Falcons were a horrible franchise. They had a Super Bowl appearance in 1998, but they also had never had back to back winning seasons. That changed in Dimitroff and Ryan’s first two seasons. The Falcons are in the best era of their franchise, half of the team’s 14 playoff seasons have been on Dimitroff’s watch. Before he arrived, the Falcons had a .404 winning percentage, under him it’s .576. He’s done a very good job running Arthur Blank’s second best team. Again, not entirely a fraud.

But a bit of a fraud.

51 of the 87 draft picks that Dimitroff has made have been on defenders, including 13 of 17 in 2013 and 2014. Dimitroff’s two head coaches, Mike Smith and Dan Quinn, are defensive coaches. The team has never sustained a good defense. Over the eleven seasons entering this year, the Dimitroff Falcons have field a top ten defense in points just three times, none of which were consecutive, they’ve had four bottom ten seasons. They’ve had one top ten DVOA season and five bottom ten seasons.

The offense has been high profile, but not prolific in big spots. The 2016 Falcons offense was all but unstoppable until they stopped themselves, which has been a running theme. The 2010 Falcons put up just 194 yards in their playoff loss to the Packers. In 2011 they were 7th in scoring, they were shutout in the playoffs against the Giants. The 2012 edition had a season high 477 yards in the NFC Conference Championship, but scored just 24 points, their tenth best performance. Bad endings to good seasons are something a tradition in Atlanta, and the Falcons filled the post-Bobby Cox era void.

Another era in Falcons history is on the horizon. Matt Ryan is 34, every season for the rest of his career should be a win-now season. If the Falcons lose to the Eagles, they’ll be 0-2, a hole that is extremely difficult to climb out of. Franchises trying to win championships usually don’t tolerate back-to-back losing seasons. GMs usually don’t get to hire a third coach. Thomas Dimitroff’s failure to make even marginal gains this year could result in a major change.