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Fifty miles northeast of Atlanta, and Friday night was turning into Saturday morning. A solitary figure strode across a dewy practice field at the Falcons' training complex in Flowery Branch, Ga. All that lit general manager Thomas Dimitroff's path were a few stars and the dim glow from the team's offices 150 yards away. It was 1:05 a.m.
As with so many of his peers last week, the 45-year-old Dimitroff did not work bankers' hours. Nor did he work regular training-camp hours. In fact, it was the strangest week of his two decades in professional football. At 1:30 the previous Monday afternoon, NFL owners and players had agreed on the framework of the collective bargaining agreement, ending the 135-day lockout and jump-starting the league. Consequently the signing period for draft picks and free agents, which normally spans five months, would be compressed into five days as the NFL operated on the fly. Example: Originally the league said teams would be able to make deals with free-agent rookies at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Then, at 6:25 p.m. on Monday it was announced that those negotiations could begin in 35 minutes.
It's the kind of week when a personnel guy might tell his wife and kids he won't be home for a while. "How do you know anything in a week like this?" said Dimitroff last Friday. "None of us has ever been through this before."
This was the end of Day Five. But not really the end, because one day blended into the next, and there was still work to do. Falcons left guard Justin Blalock, 27, was a free agent, and Dimitroff wanted to keep him. The contract needed to get done, which is why the G.M. was now headed through the darkness to the office of Nick Polk, the team's salary cap expert.
Dimitroff knocked lightly and walked in. He found Polk, with an inked-up offer sheet on his desk, talking with Blalock's agent, Ben Dogra, on speakerphone. It had been a busy day for Dogra too: Nine hours earlier he'd landed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha a five-year, $60 million contract with the Eagles (page 32). After listening in on the back-and-forth for a few minutes, Dimitroff burst into the conversation: "Come on, Benny! Me and you! Come on! We were close four days ago! We gotta close the deal!"
Dogra was hoarse. He laid out his case—again—and Polk and Dimitroff banged home theirs. Dogra cited the Buccaneers' Friday re-signing of guard Davin Joseph for seven years and $53 million; Polk and Dimitroff balked and said Dogra would have to accept an offset clause so that if Blalock was cut with guaranteed money left on the contract, the Falcons' obligation would be reduced by what he made with his new team.
"Our owner says we gotta have an offset," Dimitroff said.
"O.K., I'll give you the offset," Dogra said. "But I get my average per year, my three-year cash number and my guarantee."
"Benny, Benny, Benny," Dimitroff said.
Atlanta entered the week with three major personnel goals: to sign a pass-rushing left end who could provide a strong complement to the aging John Abraham and to ink two of its free agents, Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo, to long-term deals. Clabo agreed on Friday to a five-year, $25 million contract. Dimitroff hoped the promising 27-year-old Blalock would come in at five years for a little above $30 million.