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The coach Nick Sirianni “can become” looks pretty bad

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There’s a line from Jeffery Lurie about Nick Sirianni that I keep coming back to. I try not to, but I can’t escape it. I think of it when I see another bad play called. I think about it when Sirianni admits to a fault of his in a press conference and then repeats that fault on the field the following week. I think of it when I’m talking to other people about the Eagles this season. Others have used it too recently. The line comes from Lurie’s call to offer Sirianni the job.

“We are so incredibly excited for the coach you are and the coach you can become.”

The coach you can become.

It’s a telling quote. It’s an admittance that the 2021 Eagles are a work in progress, which is of course exactly what the expectation should be. And it’s an admittance that Nick Sirianni is himself a work in progress, which again is exactly what the expectation should be for a 40 year old first time head coach and play caller.

But I keep coming back to it because the coach that Nick Sirianni is and is becoming has not been and is not inspiring. The season opener was a great start, but it now looks like fool’s gold. Sirianni appears to be becoming something resembling the worst version of Chip Kelly.

Watching the 2021 Eagles I get the same sense of going nowhere dread I got watching the 2015 team. Even the numbers, which are besides the point, are similar.

The Fast and Unfurious

2015 2021
2015 2021
Seconds Per Play 1st 2nd
Time of Possession 32nd 31st
Off Yards Per Drive 23rd 20th
Off Points Per Drive 22nd 17th
Off TOP Per Drive 32nd 31st
Def TOP Per Drive 27th 31st
Off Drive Success Rate 21st 23rd
Def Drive Success Rate 24th 27th

The playbooks and the approaches are different, but the results are the same. Both teams have very inefficient offenses and defenses that get off the field in a hurry, so the cycle quickly repeats itself. Both offenses are a stale collection of individual plays rather than a cohesive playbook, and those plays are both poorly designed and poorly executed as the coach tries to fit square pegs into round holes. And the coaches don’t seem to either have any new ideas or are willing to try any new ideas.

Kelly’s offense went rotten after about a year and a half because the NFL adjusted to his tempo; and Kelly removed the threat of his QB running by starting QBs who aren’t threats as runners, which telegraphed plays. (Running some of his best players out of town didn’t help either.) Instead of countering these changes by updating his playbook, he couldn’t think of anything new to add and just removed parts of it, so his offense became one dimensional and thus predictable.

“I don’t think there’s any secret,” Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “There was a lot of talk about their fast-paced offense, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how fast they ran a play, we were just on it. We knew what plays were coming and it’s a pretty basic offense. Their offense is kind of predictable. They have a lot of plays where they can only run one way. We were ready for everything they had.”

That quote is from December of 2014. In a preview of his short lived tenure with the 49ers, Chris Brown of Smart Football has a detailed breakdown of how bland and telegraphed Kelly’s offense was in the second half of his tenure with the Eagles. The sight of a bewildered Sam Bradford walking to the sideline after another three and out with an RPO that wasn’t really an RPO to DeMarco Murray that gained 2 yards, only for Chip Kelly to lament the players execution of the plays isn’t that far removed from our memories. At least Kelly’s offense took time to spoil. The 2021 Eagles almost immediately have an equally stale offense that has shown little ability to adjust.

“I feel like [the Buccaneers] came out there and knew what we were doing right away,” said left tackle Jordan Mailata. “We just had to adapt — and it took us a little bit of time to adapt — but like I said, they do their homework, too. Just like we do. We have to learn to adapt and we have to learn to adapt faster.”

That quote is from last week. The sixth game of the season.

Yes, it’s only 6 games into the season. But what has Sirianni shown that indicates the next 11 will be any different or better?

Much has been made about the Eagles lack of running the ball, and deservedly so. The Eagles have one of the worst pass/run ratios this season for no good reason. Miles Sanders is on pace to finish this season with fewer rushing attempts in 17 games than he had in 12 last year, and just 21 more touches. Kenneth Gainwell has rightfully replaced Boston Scott on the depth chart, but he’s seeing the field slightly less and averaging slightly fewer touches a game than Scott did last year.

Every defensive coordinator wants to establish control of the middle of the field, Nick Sirianni doesn’t even bother trying to fight that battle.

Per Football Outsiders, the Eagles are 13th in adjusted line yards on runs between the tackles, but just 25th in the frequency in which they run up the middle. The Eagles have the 6th best yards per carry by running backs. They rank 13th in late down short yardage runs, 16th in stuffed rate, 3rd in second level yards, and 9th in open field yards. According to the NFL box score stats, they’re 5th in yards per attempt up the middle but just 22nd in attempts. They average 4.8 yards per attempt on 1st and 10, which is the 13th best rate, but are only 30th in the league in attempts (not counting scrambles).

When the Eagles run the ball they are average to very good at it. But they rarely run the ball. No sane person is asking Nick Sirianni to bring back the I formation and hand the ball off 35 times a game. But it isn’t too much to ask him to end a half with his running backs combining for more attempts than you can count on one hand. His team isn’t lacking for talent or performance.

Being good at running the ball but having one of the worst run/pass ratios is on its own a potentially fatal flaw, but it’s not Sirianni’s only flaw. Another is complimenting that lack of any kind of offensive balance with a passing offense that has no balance itself. That problem is part QB, part coach.

Jalen Hurts misses too many plays while doing his best Mitch Trubisky impression. Hurts rarely sees, or at least attempts, the left side of the field. There is some upside to him not throwing to his left much: he’s terrible at it. Hurts is 19 for 52 with 1 TD and 3 INT on passes to the left beyond the line of scrimmage (this does not include plays that ended in penalties), and on passes to the left of at least 15 yards, he’s 5 for 20 with 1 TD and 2 INT. Certainly some of the passing game struggles are on Hurts’ limitations as a passer. Hurts didn’t throw to the middle of the field much under Doug Pederson and continues to not do so, just seven passes have been attempted between the hashes this season. It’s hard to have a consistent passing attack when the QB isn’t willing or able to throw to multiple sections of the field.

But Hurts’ predictable passing is both amplified and in part due to Sirianni’s predictable playcalls. 25% of Eagles pass attempts have been at or behind the line of scrimmage, 45% of pass attempts have been 5 yards past the line of scrimmage or less. Most of Jalen Hurts’ deep attempts are near the sideline. This offense gives defenses no reason to defend the middle of the field.

But what’s most damning is that Sirianni and his team, like Kelly and his team, hasn’t gotten better.

Sirianni’s supposedly ability to adapt his offense to his players has been an empty promise. It was assumed by many that Sirianni would adapt his offense to his QB as the Colts did when they had, due to injuries and retirement, three different starting QBs in three seasons. Sirianni even used it as a selling point himself. He obviously hasn’t.

Nor has he developed players. What unit on any side of the ball has improved since the season started? The offensive line has once again done an impressive job of holding itself together despite a near-weekly starting lineup rotation. But the key there is that they did it before, without Sirianni. That credit belongs to Jeff Stoutland, an S-Tier offensive line coach. The QB hasn’t gotten better since the season started. The receivers haven’t gotten better, which is particularly damning considering Sirianni’s history as a WR coach. Quez Watkins had an impressive camp. The first three plays of the season went to him, he caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Then he didn’t get targeted until late in the 1st quarter of the next game. Jalen Reagor is averaging as many yards per reception as Kenneth Gainwell. The defense hasn’t gotten better.

Perhaps with a better roster Sirianni would coach better, but that’s not an excuse. Every coach looks better with a better roster. Chip Kelly did. The 2021 Eagles were always expected to be bad. We can live with that. But this team isn’t better than a sum of its parts, and that’s on the coach.

It’s hard to get excited about the coach Nick Sirianni can become when he hasn’t shown any ability to become something else.