EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Arthur Smith said it came at his wife’s suggestion, growing the stubble that might eventually grow into a salt-and-pepper beard on the Atlanta Falcons coach’s face. Perhaps she liked the look. Perhaps it was something to shake things up after two straight 20-plus point defeats to start his tenure.
Smith is not a superstitious person, but the beard might be here to stay for a little while.
“A get-a-win beard, how about that?” Smith said.
While Smith was joking -- maybe -- the other messages he has tried to stress over the past three weeks might have stuck. Over and over again, players and Smith himself came up to the podium following Atlanta’s come-from-behind 17-14 win over the New York Giants using the same sentiment. The same word.
Believe. Or belief.
This, they said, is how they powered through the first two weeks of the season. Of seeking positives in watching largely negative game film. Of listening to Smith continue to stick with the process he believed in even if the results weren’t tangible in the final score.
When asked how Smith was doing it -- through messaging or his coaching or perhaps signage like Ted Lasso -- quarterback Matt Ryan laughed. No, he said, there is no ‘Believe’ sign in the locker room the players hit and Smith does not coach like Lasso does.
Smith kept pointing out the positive while coaching through the negative. He showed -- twice -- that he believed in young players to come through bad games: Left guard Jalen Mayfield after the opener and punter Cam Nizialek after Week 2 in Tampa Bay, where he shanked two punts.
He stuck with both of them after bringing in veterans to compete with them the following week. Mayfield has played better since. Nizialek put three of his six punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 47.3 yards a kick.
“Making it constructive and I think guys have taken that coaching to heart,” Ryan said. “The good and the tough and tried to improve and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do as players.”
It showed in the final moments Sunday, when the Falcons trailed, 14-7. They tied the game with a Ryan-to-Lee Smith touchdown pass with 4:13 left. They stopped the Giants and forced a punt at midfield to get the ball back with 1 minute, 50 seconds left, then drove down and set up a game-winning field goal for Younghoe Koo.
“Hopefully [Sunday] is another step in that right direction to get us going,” Smith said.
It was because of what Smith had preached and the difference two weeks can make. During Week 1, with the Falcons trailing big against Philadelphia, Smith didn’t like the feeling he had on the sidelines from his players.
It irked him. He needed to get that changed. So the last two weeks, he took it as a challenge. To work on the mindset of his players. To get them to believe they could do what they needed to do to win games. To building a true culture.
That includes his own way of thinking and being willing to evolve. He stresses to players to do what they are asked and not press too much, because that’s when big mistakes can happen. And just to believe.
Smith is constantly talking about mindset, about consistency. And it has percolated its way on down. Every player mentioned it -- the message not only from Smith but from the players to each other, too.
“We just adjusted,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “The things that were hurting us were fixable. I think we did a good job of that in our preparation and believing in ourselves and just, you know, knowing that we can get over that hump and continue to push.”
The reality is, talk means little unless there’s tangibility behind it. Sunday provided that. Things didn’t always go well for Atlanta. The offense was often stagnant. The defense was better but still allowed three drives of 10 plays or more.
And it’s something that can carry over, too. Winning -- winning late, winning from behind -- can be built upon. With the Washington Football Team and New York Jets approaching next, it’s something Atlanta now knows it can do.
“It’s big for us,” receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said. “It’s about believing. Having trust that what we’re doing will work for us. And this is big for us.”