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Former NFL coach Tony Dungy's advice to Falcons' Arthur Smith: 'Don't change'

Arthur Smith's debut didn't go according to plan, but he knows fortunes can change quickly in the NFL. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Tony Dungy remembers it vividly. He'd waited a lifetime for the opportunity. Finally an NFL head coach heading into the 1996 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he'd instilled his beliefs and had his team prepared.

Then the Bucs took the field.

"It was even worse than you could imagine," Dungy said.

Nothing went right. The offense failed. The defense couldn't stop the Green Bay Packers. Everything unraveled in a 34-3 loss in which the Buccaneers didn't score a touchdown.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Arthur Smith believed his Atlanta Falcons were prepared entering his NFL head coaching debut on Sunday. And nothing went right then, either: a 32-6 loss that was the worst season-opening loss at home in franchise history and third-worst opener ever for the Falcons.

Dungy understands. He has been there, and his best piece of advice is to go against human nature: Don't change. Don't panic.

"It would be that simple," Dungy told ESPN this week. "You had a plan. Believe in the plan. Trust it. Don't leave your game plan. Don't think you have to do something else. This is what Plan A was. Plan A is going to be the best for you and stick with it and show your team that determination to do that.

"That's the best way to go."

Dungy's turnaround, though, is an outlier. Since 1990, 10 coaches have had Week 1 debuts, score differential-wise, worse than Smith's according to ESPN Stats & Information. One, Dungy, is a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl winner. Another, Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski, turned his team around and made the playoffs at 11-5 last year. Miami's Brian Flores is in the midst of an attempted rebuild with the Dolphins after a 59-10 opening loss in 2019.

The rest? Yikes. Only Stefanski and Dungy have winning percentages over .500. Most won fewer than a third of their games, including Chris Palmer (5-27 in Cleveland), Steve Spagnuolo (11-41 with the Rams) and Matt Patricia (13-29-1 in Detroit).

Despite the failure of others, there is reason for confidence in Smith. It'll depend on how he approaches the challenge. Which he understands.

"On the surface, you're sitting there saying, you've got beliefs and there are things we're talking with, people use that buzzword 'process,' right? That's become like a corporate buzzword," Smith said. "... But to have a real process in your culture, there are things that you have in your beliefs and your foundations."

It's what Dungy did in 1996, even when Tampa Bay started out 0-5. Through the losses -- and a vote for a new stadium -- his message to his team remained. Even after a Week 4 loss at home against Seattle when Dungy heard a fan screaming at him.

"At the top of his lungs: 'Dungy, you stink! You were supposed to turn us around. You're the worst coach we've ever had. We're worse than we've ever been. I'm never coming back here as long as you're the coach!'" Dungy said. "And I just keep my head down and walk into the locker room. I tell the team, 'I know you heard that and I heard it, too. We're on the right track. We've got to keep doing things right. We're going to turn that guy around and we'll turn everything around.'"

During the bye week after the 0-5 start, then-general manager Rich McKay - now the Falcons' team president - and the Bucs' owners went to lunch with Dungy and told him they were in it for the "long haul" and not to panic. To stick with what worked. That McKay lived through this with Dungy could help Smith too.

A year later, Dungy did turn everything around. The Bucs won five of their final seven games in 1996. In 1997, they went 10-6 and made the playoffs. This happened, in part, because players saw his consistency after they were blown out in Week 1.

His conviction to his plan made players believe. If he wasn't panicking, there was no reason for them to.

"Our players all pointed to it. I think the thing that helped is that we did not change anything," Dungy said. "I was as shocked as anyone. You go in and you feel like you've been waiting for this for years and years and I've got the formula and I know this is going to work. You preach and sell 'this is the way we're going to do it and we're going to have success.' And then you don't.

"Then it's easy to say, 'Well, OK, we need to try this, do this.' I came back and said, 'Hey, we're going to do everything the way we've done it. Everything is going to be the same. We're not changing a thing. We just have to do it better, more often and be on top of it.'"

Smith appears to have a similar mindset. He said Wednesday that he understands the criticism and he studies it -- in part because he believes in constantly trying to evolve. When you don't, when you stay too rigid, that's when you fail.

Even though the debut was rough, it was just one game. Far too soon for him to tear up a plan he spent months implementing and years devising before he even got the job. It's why he made sure to make clear he doesn't need consoling after a loss and he refuses to look at everything as catastrophic.

Because it's not. It's a week. It's a bad loss. But for him to keep it from becoming more, he can't start freaking out. He knows that. He also knows he can't be too stubborn, because that won't work, either.

"It goes back to me to being objective. I think, like everything ... that's part of your job, is to try to be as neutral as you can," Smith said. "We all have biases. It's human nature. You try to be as objective to the truth as you see it. What needs to get fixed? Where am I? Where can I do better?

"That's where I start every day with me. That's not me being a martyr, that's a damn truth."