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Can Nick Sirianni get the most out of Jalen Hurts?

Evaluating the QB credentials of the new head coach

NFL: JUL 26 Colts Training Camp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nick Sirianni has a lot of work to do to turn the Eagles around, none more important than getting his starting QB to play better. Prorating Jalen Hurts’ four starts to 16 games, he would have been one of the worst quarterbacks in 2020. His 52% completion percentage would have been dead last, his 6.9 yards per attempt and 3.8 TD% would have been 23rd, his 2.3 INT% would have been 21st, his 77.2 passer rating would have been 32nd. He was terrible as a passer, but then so was nearly everything else about the Eagles offense in 2020.

Can a coaching change breathe new life into an offense full of young players who weren’t getting results?

That question presents two questions:

Can Nick Sirianni improve Jalen Hurts? The Eagles should be in prime position to draft a QB in the 2022 draft, either through merit with a top pick or with several valuable picks to trade. Fair or not, this could be a make or break year for Hurts.

Can Nick Sirianni improve the Eagles offense? Hurts could stink and the Eagles offense could still improve, they were that bad last year. The 2020 Eagles had the league’s worst sack rate, yards per attempt, completion percentage, and the second worst turnover rate and scoring rate. The Eagles were 26th in points, 24th in yards, 28th in passing yards, 24th in passing touchdowns, and next to last in interceptions. It was broken in about every way, it won’t take much for even modest improvement.

While an improved Jalen Hurts would lead to a better offense, it’s not a requirement. First of all, the (remote) possibility exists that Joe Flacco would take over and be better. But more importantly, the team could improve it’s miserable sack rate, the young WRs could improve with better coaching and more experience (to say nothing of the arrival of DeVonta Smith), and the team could reduce their turnovers while the QB play remained pitiful and the team offense would still improve. It wouldn’t be good, but it would be better.

So let us take a look at the QBs that Nick Sirianni has worked with as either a QB coach or offensive coordinator and see if there are any conclusions that we can infer from them. It’s hard to evaluate non-playcalling coordinators, and even harder to evaluate position coaches, but it’s what we have to work with.

Fortunately all of Sirianni’s QBs had starting experience before he arrived, so we have something to compare their play to.

Philip Rivers - QB coach, 2014 and 2015

Rivers 2013 Rank Rivers 2014 Rank Rivers 2015 Rank
Rivers 2013 Rank Rivers 2014 Rank Rivers 2015 Rank
Completion % 69.5 1st 66.5 4th 66.1 7th
TD % 5.9 5th 5.4 6th 4.4 19th
INT % 2 11th 3.2 25th 2 10th
Yards/Attempt 8.2 4th 7.5 10th 7.2 16th
Passer rating 105.5 4th 93.8 12th 93.8 12th
Sack % 5.2 7th 5.9 16th 5.7 17th
Fumbles (QBs) 3 34th 8 13th 4 27th

2013 was one of Rivers’ best statistical seasons, so regression the next year was inevitable. Rivers’ two seasons with Sirianni as his QB coach were basically average seasons for his career. And yes, that’s not a typo, his QB rating was the same number and rank in 2014 and 2015. Impressive consistency.

However, Sirianni was the QB coach for a team with an offensive head coach, so it’s hard to make out the impact of the coach who was third on the depth chart. After the 2015 season Mike McCoy fired Frank Reich and brought back Ken Whisenhunt, and moved Sirianni from QB coach to WR coach; a demotion but then Mike McCoy was a really bad head coach. Rivers did make the Pro Bowl in 2016, but he was less efficient: he had a significant drop off in completion percentage, his interception rate shot up, and his passer rating was his lowest in 9 years.

For what it’s worth, Rivers’ QB coach in 2016 was Shane Steichen, who is now the Eagles offensive coordinator. In 2020 he was the Chargers offensive coordinator, Justin Hebert was Rookie of the Year and looks like the newest edition of The Next Big Thing. It’s really hard to judge position coaches.

Andrew Luck - offensive coordinator, 2018

Luck 2016 Rank Luck 2018 Rank
Luck 2016 Rank Luck 2018 Rank
Completion % 63.5 16th 67.3 11th
TD % 5.7 5th 6.1 7th
INT % 2.4 20th 2.3 17th
Yards/Attempt 7.8 5th 7.2 21st
Passer rating 96.4 9th 98.7 11th
Sack % 7 27th 2.7 1st
Fumbles (QBs) 6 20th 6 19th

This season kind of needs an asterisk. Andrew Luck was a broken man when he returned, he had missed all of 2017 recovering from shoulder surgery, and 2018 would be his last season. And yet he was still good, and finished the year 2nd in touchdowns. His drop off in yards per attempt can in part be attributed to his loss in arm strength, you may remember the Colts brought in Jacoby Brissett for a Hail Mary attempt against the Eagles in Week 3. In the first half of the season he had a paltry 6.4 yards per attempt, in the second half it shot up to an excellent 8.1. We can attribute that in part to recovery from the shoulder surgery that kept him out of 2017. He also had his career best completion percentage, with his previous career high in 2016.

What also stands out is that Luck saw a massive improvement in sack rate, which we’ll see again in Indianapolis. For Luck his improvement was not just a natural progression back to career norms after a career worst rate. Prior to 2018 his career sack rate was 5.6%, his lowest single season rate was 4.2%.

Jacoby Brissett - offensive coordinator, 2019

Brissett 2017 Rank Brissett 2019 Rank
Brissett 2017 Rank Brissett 2019 Rank
Completion % 58.8 30 60.9 26th
TD % 2.8 28th 4 24th
INT % 1.5 4th 1.3 6th
Yards/Attempt 6.6 24th 6.6 27th
Passer rating 81.7 22nd 88 18th
Sack % 10 34th 5.7 10th
Fumbles (QBs) 8 12th 7 18th

Brissett started in 2017 when Luck was unable to return from shoulder surgery. Brissett went back to the bench when Luck returned for the 2018 season, then was put back in the starting role when Luck suddenly retired during the 2019 preseason.

Again we see a dramatic decrease in sacks, but there’s some noise here with Brissett. A 10% sack rate is horrendous, a rate that initially scans as either an unrepeatable bad outlier, or the mark of a QB who shouldn’t be starting. Both are possible with Brissett, who owes every start of his career to a Tom Brady suspension, an Andrew Luck injury, and Luck’s retirement. In his two starts and a relief appearance with the Patriots, which is a small sample size, his sack rate was 9.8%, which may indicate that Jacoby Brissett is extremely bad at avoiding sacks.

But other than the improvement in sack rate, Brissett was the same player with and without Reich and Sirianni: a QB who doesn’t take risks so he doesn’t get rewards.

Philip Rivers - offensive coordinator, 2020

Rivers 2019 Rank Rivers 2020 Rank
Rivers 2019 Rank Rivers 2020 Rank
Completion % 66 10th 68 8th
TD % 3.9 25th 4.4 20th
INT % 3.4 30th 2 16th
Yards/Attempt 7.8 11th 7.7 9th
Passer rating 88.5 17th 97 13th
Sack % 5.4 7th 3.4 4th
Fumbles (QBs) 8 15th 2 33rd

Rivers’ interception rate improvement was significant, and like Luck he had a high completion rate for his career (3rd best) but everything else stayed the same. But Rivers has always had inconsistent interception rates: nine times in his 17 year career his INT rate changed by at least 1%, and his 2.0% in 2020 is closer to his career average of 2.5% than his 3.4% in 2019. Like Brissett and Luck, his sack rate improved.

Three QBs with prior starting experience gives us a decent baseline to draw some answers to the questions I asked earlier.

Can Nick Sirianni make Jalen Hurts a quality starting QB? Inconclusive.

It’s hard to say Nick Sirianni definitively made any of his QBs better. Rivers has always been a gambler, and that didn’t change when he was his QB coach; his interceptions were cut down while Sirianni was his offensive coordinator, but nothing out of line with the rest of his career. Brissett is the opposite in terms of playing style: he doesn’t turn the ball over much because he doesn’t take chances or push the ball down field, and that didn’t change with Sirianni. Luck was more or less the same player as he’s been before. Credit Sirianni and Reich for getting quality seasons out of Luck and Rivers in the final years of their careers, especially with a damaged Luck. But they didn’t reinvent any of their QBs.

Can Nick Sirianni improve the Eagles offense? Quite possibly.

What Reich and Sirianni did in Indy was speed up the post-snap passing game, and that benefited the offense as a whole.

It’s reasonable to assume that Nick Sirianni’s Eagles offense will do the same. Removing some deeper, low percentage throws on long developing plays with shorter, high percentage throws that develop quickly is a good way to improve a bad offense. Fewer sacks means fewer negative plays, and replacing some zero yard plays with even short gains of course benefits the offense as a whole. But that’s not the same as improving a QB. Driving a better car doesn’t mean your ability to drive a car has improved.

To Sirianni’s credit, he hasn’t had bad QB play. The worst QB performance he got by passer rating was Brissett finishing 18th, which is impressive for a backup caliber player who was vaulted into the starting role two weeks before the season opener.

On the other hand, he’s never had to develop a QB. To be fair to Sirianni, there are maybe three coaches in the NFL who have shown they can actually develop QBs (and even then I’m struggling to think of anyone besides Andy Reid), everyone else is merely along for the ride. The closest thing to a project Sirianni had was Brissett, who was 27 when Sirianni coached him.

Jalen Hurts will be new territory for him. He’ll be, by several years, the youngest QB Sirianni has coached who will see the field (he did have Jacob Eason and Chad Kelly in Indianapolis, but they never played). The 2020 Eagles were a bad situation for any offensive player to operate in, but Hurts didn’t outplay his draft expectations in any way, as exciting as he was against New Orleans and Arizona, he was awful against Dallas and Washington. He entered the league with questionable accuracy, decision making, and arm strength; all of which he showed when he played. He looked like a rookie QB who was drafted in the 2nd round with a ceiling of low end starter/high end backup. If Hurts is something like the 28th best QB in the league in 2021, that’s probably a good sign for Nick Sirianni. That might be the best anyone could get out of him.

There are a lot of ways to look at a coach’s body of work. Not lowering the floor of their team is a bar that many coaches are unable to clear. I think that Sirianni getting his QBs to play, relative to their careers, average at worst is a pretty positive sign. There are coaches with worse credentials who have gotten head coaching jobs because of their supposed ability to work with QBs. It sounds dumb, but one of the keys to being good is by not being bad. Competence goes a long way. There have been plenty of assistant coaches who get derailed from their track record when they get a head coaching job. For all we know, Nick Sirianni might be another. But if his history as a QB coach and offensive coordinator are in fact an indication, he’ll get as reasonable a performance out of Jalen Hurts as can be, whatever that may turn out to be. That would count as a success.

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