How a Cycling Team Turned the Falcons Into NFC Champions

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Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons superstar quarterback and reigning MVP, has earned comparisons to the sport’s elite. He showed a Tom Brady–esque ability to spread the ball around last year, and his career yards per attempt is tied with Brady and Drew Brees.

But Atlanta’s general manager sees a different comparison.

“When watching Chris before and after races—where his head was: Watching Matt and where his head is going into big games, that’s where I saw the similarities.”

Dimitroff is talking about Chris Froome, winner of four of the past five Tour de France titles. Froome is the lead rider for Team Sky.

“It was watching how they handle themselves, not only with the team but also with the media,” Dimitroff said. “They’re in the heat of the battle, but this wildly intense acute focus is what really struck me.”

Team Sky’s competitive philosophy centers around something that the team’s general manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, refers to as “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Rather than searching for the one thing that could vault them ahead of their competitors, Brailsford and Co. try to create as many tiny advantages as they can—through things like maintaining consistent sleeping habits and hiring a surgeon to teach cyclists how to avoid illness. Add them all up, and you get five Tour De France wins in the past six years. They have an unlikely disciple in Dimitroff, one of the best general managers in the NFL, who has studied the approach in an attempt to bring some marginal gains to the football field.

Apologies to the Golden State Warriors and Real Madrid, but Team Sky is the best sports team in the world. Last Sunday, Froome won the Vuelta a España (the Tour of Spain), the team’s latest triumph in its latest incredible year, which featured their third consecutive Tour De France victory.

Led by Brailsford, a British cycling legend, Team Sky are famous for their attention to detail.They test their suits in wind tunnels to see what kind of tiny effect the fabric has on a cyclist’s aerodynamics. They paint the floor of their bike truck white so they can spot normally invisible dust that might harm bike maintenance during a race. The team has even brought their own mattresses on the road so that the riders never change their sleeping posture.

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Dimitroff has spent parts of the last two summers embedded with the team in France. A two-time Executive of the Year with Atlanta, he has built one of the most athletic and talented teams in football. Last season, the Falcons scored 540 points, tied for seventh-most in NFL history as they rolled to an NFC title before losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Dimitroff’s top draft picks—Ryan, Julio Jones, and Vic Beasley—are some of the best in the league at any position. Part of the team’s success can be attributed to Dimitroff’s forward thinking, which has been helped by his study of and communication with Brailsford and Team Sky.

When I asked him about seeing Team Sky up close, as Dimitroff searched for a word to describe his feeling, he told me that it was not giddy. But let’s be clear: He was totally giddy.

“It’s off the charts how many things they think about that we might not,” Dimitroff said. “In our sport sometimes we think, ‘Ah, we don’t want to overkill it, right?’ We don’t want to be too detailed or overly analytical because it may send us off on a tangent. They don’t think that way at all. And I’m amazed at that.”

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.

The biggest opportunity for improvement among players, according to Quinn, is the jump from your rookie year to Year 2. Look no further than Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s 2015 first-round pick who improved from 4.0 sacks as a rookie to 15.5 sacks last year, helping lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl. But after Year 2 of a player’s career, Quinn says, all of the gains become small: “So it’s ‘improve on this motion, this rhythm.’”

To that end, Quinn (whose passion sport, it should be noted, is boxing, not cycling) has been playing around with the smallest of details. In August during camp, the team had Falcons fans who’d come to the team’s facility to watch practice and cheer as loudly as they could—just to see how the players would react to the change. They’ve even started to practice hyperspecific situations drawn from real-life games. On the day I visited training camp in August, they were replicating a scenario from a game against New Orleans last year: They ran a play on third-and-6, gained 4 yards, and then went for it on fourth. In practice, they ran both of those plays.

This creates an environment where every in-game scenario will be tested in practice. As Quinn put it: “Create a little chaos and see how they handle that and thrive in that.” In pass protection, Quinn mentions the marginal differences between success and failure and how each repetition in practice can bring about improvement, calling to mind the old adage: You don’t fear the man who has 10,000 kicks, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

“When I challenge the coaches, it’s, ‘Where do we make our gains? And how do we get them 1 percent better?’” Quinn said.

Dimitroff has biked routinely but mostly for fun since he was a kid, growing up in different parts of Canada. But when he moved to Boulder, Colorado, as an area scout for the Lions in the 1990s, he became enamored with the city’s cycling culture—especially its residents’ devotion to nutrition and fitness—and started mountain biking. Now, he tries to ride every day he can—for dozens of miles at a time. He eventually started to watch competitive cycling, too. He’s also become involved in a charity, PeopleForBikes, that encourages biking. (Dimitroff said Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace is a fellow biking enthusiast and wants to help grow out more NFL-biking initiatives.)

San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and former Chelsea FC executive Mike Forde introduced Dimitroff to Brailsford at a program called “Leaders In Sport,” which connects the top minds in sports through various events. Advisers to the group include Dimitroff, Brailsford, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

Thomas Dimitroff at Super Bowl LI in Houston
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Buford, Dimitroff said, has been an influence in his life by showing him how to incorporate the methodology of different sports into his own. “He really sort of instilled this whole idea of making sure you’re always developing as a general manager,” Dimitroff said. “You can sit there and say, 'OK, I’m myopically focused on only football and only football people come hell or high water. What will rugby or Formula 1, or basketball, or baseball do for me?’”

This led to Brailsford inviting Dimitroff to embed during the tour in 2016. “I’ve never been in awe. I mean, I appreciate athletes. I’ve been around this game all my life. So I've never been in awe with sports athletes. But I’m, yeah, in awe [of Team Sky]. Because it’s not just the athletes, it’s the whole program.”

In July 2016, Dimitroff was riding in a car in front of the pack during one of the more famous stages in recent Tour history. Froome got into a crash and then ran up Mont Ventoux without a bike. “It was outrageous. Short of the two Super Bowls [while with New England] and now the third run here in the Super Bowl with us, I’ve never experienced anything like that in a sporting event in my life.”

There are, of course, massive differences between cycling and football. The Falcons will likely not test out their jerseys in a wind tunnel, but beyond thinking of the little things, there are tangible methods to borrow from the cycling world.

For instance, Team Sky puts nutritional pamphlets on their riders’ tables every morning “to educate the guys while they’re eating their oatmeal,” Dimitroff said. That is something the Falcons are now looking at incorporating.

“The reality is, I wanted to be the first GM that was hanging a Whole Foods billboard in our stadium,” Dimitroff said. “Too often in this sport in the past, we’ve been, ‘Ah, you just give them anything. They don’t have the palate for this or that.’ You go down into our café or our and we just have the ability to juice anything, which is amazing, right? A lot of these guys have never had juice in their lives. They’re having beet and carrot and apple and ginger and spinach and kale and it’s, ‘This is amazing.’ I love that.”

Not surprisingly, Dimitroff says he finds value in being ahead of the curve and he’s gotten support from ownership in trying to get and then stay there. He said that nearly everything he sees with Team Sky is new to him—and he’s trying to emulate their culture.

“When I look at athletes in the cycling community,” Dimitroff said, “I feel like they are so far ahead.”

Dimitroff said he’s already made plans for Brailsford and his sporting directors to come to Atlanta this fall and talk more about the art of elite performance.

While NFL teams still value many old-school principles—like toughness or grit—Dimitroff was quick to point out that this “small things” approach has nothing to do with whether an athlete is tough or not. This is about building the athletes to be the best.

“I think it’s the technology of just making sure that you’re treating the athletes as well as you can at all levels. And it's not a soft thing at all. Those guys aren’t soft. You can't ride 2,200 miles in 21-plus days and be mentally soft,” he said. “Team Sky is really dialed in on making sure that they're propping up the athletes as much as they can, and they're not looking at it like we're making them soft because we're providing them with everything they need. [We are] trying to maximize their abilities.”

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