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Dimitroff's smart moves helped Falcons emerge from doldrums

Offseason pickups Matt Ryan (2) and Michael Turner have keyed the Falcons' turnaround. Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The New York Jets' Mike Tannenbaum was my midseason favorite for executive of the year, but Thomas Dimitroff of the Atlanta Falcons will be my end-of-season selection.

It's not about how you start, it's about how you finish. Even though Tannenbaum acquired Pro Bowlers Brett Favre, Alan Faneca and Kris Jenkins, as well as Pro Bowl third alternates Tony Richardson and Calvin Pace, Dimitroff took quarterback Matt Ryan. End of story. Finding that once-in-a-decade quarterback is the most important move any general manager can make.

With Ryan, there is always hope. He makes the Falcons relevant for the foreseeable future. You have to go back to Peyton Manning in 1998 to find an acquisition of equal importance. Thanks to Manning, the Colts went from worst to first in the AFC East, jumping from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in '99. Thanks to Manning and Colts president Bill Polian's ability to surround him with talent, the Colts have been a contender for a decade.

Ryan has the same type of potential. He has a major league arm. He's smart enough to run a complex offense. He's able to get to his third and fourth reads. He can run no-huddle on the road. He has taken the Falcons to the playoffs in his first season. Ryan is much more than the rookie of the year. He's the next great quarterback in the league.

By signing halfback Michael Turner, Dimitroff took a lot of pressure off his rookie quarterback. A power back who can handle 25 carries a game, Turner helped the Falcons' play-action passing game become an effective weapon.

The hiring of head coach Mike Smith also was a stroke of genius. Smith's name isn't flashy, but he's simply a good coach. The Jaguars suffered without him. Smith came in with a staff of quality assistants and a no-nonsense approach to the game. He taught the Falcons how to win.

It's hard to pass on Tannenbaum because he made bold moves, and almost every one of them worked. But the Jets have faded down the stretch. They've lost three of their past four games. At 9-6, they will be out of the playoffs if they lose to the Dolphins in Week 17. Even if they win on Sunday, they could miss the postseason if the Patriots and Ravens win.

In picking Dimitroff, I'm passing on a big name -- Bill Parcells of the Dolphins. Parcells has done an incredible job in his first season running the Dolphins, who have gone from 1-15 to possibly finishing first in the competitive AFC East. Parcells improved depth and wasted no time grabbing QB Chad Pennington after the Jets cut him.

The only flaw in Parcells' plan was passing on Ryan. Jake Long should be a great left tackle for the next decade, but a franchise quarterback has more long-term clout.

Every season, a team or two goes from worst to first in a division race. Good moves, easy schedules, better quarterback play, health and luck are big factors. The challenge, though, is staying on top. Manning has kept the Colts at the top of the league during most of his tenure. The Patriots won three Super Bowls once Tom Brady took control of the offense.

Dimitroff took Ryan. The Falcons will be major factors in this league for years to come because of that move.

Let's dive into the mailbag.

From the inbox

Q: After hearing about Albert Haynesworth's becoming a free agent in the offseason, I got excited with the prospect that the Giants could sign him and free up double-teams on Justin Tuck. I almost immediately got worried that the Eagles could sign him and free up just about anyone else to blitz Eli Manning. If the Titans can't re-sign him, where do you see Haynesworth going in the offseason?

Jimmy from Valley Stream, N.Y.

A: I wouldn't get too excited. Although Haynesworth can be the anchor for any defense, I don't see the Giants signing him. He'd be a force in New York, but he could damage team chemistry if he were to come in making more money than Tuck and other members of the defensive line. Plus, Fred Robbins has come on in the past two seasons and has developed into one of the better defensive tackles in the NFC. In case you don't know, Robbins is a second alternate for the Pro Bowl. Signing a free agent is great for improving the personnel of a team, but it can cause problems internally if not handled right. The Giants are in the midst of a nice run, winning the Super Bowl last season and getting the top seed in the NFC playoffs this season. They would be better served to improve through the draft and reward their own top players, which they will. If Haynesworth leaves Tennessee, I'd list Atlanta and Denver among his most likely destinations.

Q: Will the Cowboys use the running back-by-committee approach next season with Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice? If so, what will Choice's role be? I think Choice should get the bulk of the carries in the second and third quarters, Barber should start and finish the game and Jones should be the situational back (like Reggie Bush should be in New Orleans).

James in Dallas

A: An interesting system of running back rotations is being developed leaguewide, so your proposal shouldn't be taken lightly. Although I'm sure it might irritate you as a Cowboys fan, the Giants are setting the standard for how to use a three-back rotation. Brandon Jacobs, a bruiser, gets the early carries. Derrick Ward follows as Jacobs tires. Then Ahmad Bradshaw comes in with his fresh legs to make big plays in the fourth quarter. In Dallas, Choice could be the middle back, with Barber being used early and Jones late. Of course, we'll have to run it by Terrell Owens to see whether that would take away from his opportunities to catch passes.

Q: The past couple of weeks I have heard fellow Packers fans and plenty of broadcasters pile the blame on Aaron Rodgers for the Pack's bad season. Rodgers ranks in the top 10 in every quarterback category. What gives? And do you think Rodgers will eventually shake the ghost of Favre?

Tony in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

A: The only way Rodgers can shake the Favre shadow is to take the Packers deep into the playoffs. Rodgers deserves no criticism for this season. As he was billed in the preseason, he's been a talented quarterback. The team dropped off around him. As I have said before, the Packers would have been better off keeping Favre for one -- and only one -- more season. You don't change quarterbacks after a 13-win season. Here's Rodgers' problem: He's 0-6 in games decided by four points or fewer. He didn't generate wins late in the fourth quarter. Favre would have done that, which makes me believe the Packers would be 8-7 (at worst) instead of 5-10 heading into the final week.

Q: John, if Favre packs it in after this season, do you see the Jets making a run at Matt Cassel? I've watched three preseasons with Kellen Clemens and don't see him ever fulfilling their expectations.

Bill in New York

A: That's a decent thought. The Jets cannot afford a drop-off at quarterback, and Clemens doesn't look like he can perform at a playoff level yet. My only concern about Cassel and the Jets is that Cassel needs run-after-the catch receivers to be successful. In many ways, getting Cassel is like getting a younger version of Chad Pennington. Teams like to do things differently when they look for replacements. My guess would be that the Jets would have to look for a quarterback with a stronger arm than Cassel, but I don't know whether the right guy will be there.

Q: I have a question about QB Alex Smith. What are the chances the Niners will bring him back for another season, and do you think he has enough talent to be a starting QB?

Al in Fresno, Calif.

A: A lot of things have to happen for Smith to come back. First, he has to take a huge pay cut. Second, the 49ers would need Norv Turner to be fired in San Diego and accept the 49ers' offensive coordinator job, and I don't see that happening if the Chargers make the playoffs. Third, interim coach Mike Singletary would have to land the full-time position. That could happen, so the door is open.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.