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Nick Sirianni’s debut bridged the past to the future

A new look holds on to some past hits

Philadelphia Eagles v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We are on the eve of Week 2 but Week 1 was so much fun that we should take one more look back. We saw glimpses of how this team will succeed moving forward, and reminders of how it’s been successful in the past.

Nick Sirianni: smart guy

Hopefully the “fairly smart but not super smart” quote doesn’t follow Nick Sirianni around for his career, but so far it’s accurate, and I mean that as a positive. During training camp and the preseason, and then against the Falcons, Sirianni and his staff didn’t make dumb guy coaching mistakes that indicate they’re not cut out for the job. (The same can not be said for his counterpart Arthur Smith, who immediately after the game was criticized for not playing his starters at all in the preseason. Never mind that Nick Sirianni barely played his.)

Perhaps most tellingly, the staff aren’t beholden to how players performed last year—granted that’s not saying much—or seemed to care for draft or contract status.

Nowhere was that more clear than wide receiver. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is exactly the kind of guy that a new coach might say “they drafted this guy high, let’s see what he’s got” and undeservedly plays him ahead of better players. Instead, in camp and preseason JJAW was utilized like a guy on a roster bubble, as was Greg Ward, the Eagles most productive WR last year because somebody had to be. And that continued in the regular season, where JJAW and Ward were the team’s 4th and 5th WRs. Then there’s Travis Fulgham, who spent a month as the hottest WR in the league last year and who Sirianni was quick to relegate to third string duty. Fulgham’s bizarre benching last year was in part due to his practice habits. It doesn’t appear that he got the message.

Dumb guy coaching mistakes aren’t just on Sundays, and so far Sirianni has done a nice job of avoiding them on any day of the week.

Days of future past

It was just one game, but it was a beautiful, fun, thoroughly enjoyable game. That game, and some of the things leading up to it, brought to my mind some of the better or more promising days of previous Eagles seasons.

Jordan Mailata gets paid early

Signing Mailata to a contract extension after just 10 starts felt like something out of the playbook of the golden years of the Andy Reid era. In the early to mid 00s the Eagles were quick to sign young players to contracts as early as possible to maximize their value, they were ahead of the league in locking up players to team friendly deals, which gave them an advantage. While that edge dried up as the years went on, and the Eagles have been aggressive in the past in contract extensions such as Carson Wentz before the rest of his draft class contemporaries got paid, this one feels different.

And Mailata doesn’t even need to progress much to make this contract worth it. He’s projected to be 7th in guaranteed money among left tackles, and that comes with two caveats. One: given that we constantly see initial reported guaranteed money to be higher than the actual guaranteed money, his actual owed money may be even less. Two: when that contract extension actually kicks in, he’ll be lower than 7th, other players will sign extensions between now and then that will surpass his. Unless Mailata suddenly implodes or can’t stay healthy, the Eagles have at worst a slightly overpaid 24 year old left tackle. Plenty of teams do worse.

At the same time though, Dallas Goedert is in a contract year, so the halcyon days of yesteryear aren’t fully back.

The 1st team can compete

Though we didn’t get to see it with our own eyes, everyone who did see the joint practices between the Patriots and Jets agreed that the Eagles first team was clearly superior. Neither of those teams are great measuring sticks, but being better than bad to mediocre teams is a good sign for a rebuilding team. Then against the Falcons we saw they were clearly the better team. However in the preseason we saw that the backups were not competitive. When injuries happen, and they will, that’s when the wheels will start to fall off.

It reminds me a bit of the 2016 team. That team as you may remember got off to a 5-4 start, with all their losses by one score. Then the depth got tested, and they lost five straight. During that losing streak Wendell Smallwood was the team’s leading ball carrier for the first three games; Dorial Green-Beckham had back to back games of double digit targets; and those five games constituted nearly half of Jaylen Watkins playing time. When the starters were able to play, they were a solid team, but they couldn’t keep it up when they had to go to the bench.

This season may follow a similar pattern. I don’t expect this team to be as good as the 2016 team, that team had nearly all their best players in their prime, this season nearly all the best players are either past their prime or not yet in it. But when everyone’s healthy the defense, offensive line, and overall running game should keep them in games, even if their record isn’t good.

They put away a bad team

A 43 yard FG with 1:15 left in the game while already up 23 isn’t quite running up the score, but it’s also not not running up the score.

I liked that the first two drives of the second half were 9 runs and 4 passes, and a 4th down attempt. Aggressive doesn’t necessarily mean passing. The offense was moving the ball well on the ground, and Sirianni adapted well to start the half. Neither possession resulted in a score, but the Eagles did get to midfield and into the red zone in those two drives, and just as importantly used up half the quarter while up two scores.

It reminded me of the first half of the Chip Kelly era, where Kelly would keep his foot on the gas. In particular it reminded me of the 2013 game against Tampa Bay, perhaps because I was also at that game. That game wasn’t a blowout, the Eagles were up 28-20 midway through the 4th. But the running game was working well so Kelly leaned on it, calling 8 straight run plays and a run on 11 of 12 plays on a drive that ended with a field goal and took the game clock from 8:03 to 2:38.

Speaking of similarities in those games, I remember at one point the Bucs offense came off the field and Greg Schiano tried to say something to Donald Penn, who just walked right past him and sat on the bench. Schiano would be fired at the end of the season in part because his players hated him.

At the end of the Falcons game while all the coaches and players from both teams were on the field exchanging post game, I saw Arthur Smith sprint into the locker room. I mean full on sprint, I did not think he could move that fast. I don’t want to read too much into it, but if the rest of the Falcons season is as miserable as the Eagles game was and there are behind the scenes turmoil articles about Smith, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Three statistics of various utility

Favorite stat of the game:

Boston Scott: 0 snaps.

This isn’t anything against Scott. I like him, he’s a nice player! What makes this a positive is that Scott is the type of player who is best used sparingly. He was the #2 back last year, he and the team are better served with him as the #3. This is another positive for Nick Sirianni’s player usage: he could have given Scott and Kenneth Gainwell roughly equal playing time, and no one would have thought twice. Instead he threw the rookie with better-than-role-player potential into the deep end and kept the veteran certified role player on the bench. It certainly helped that Gainwell had himself a solid debut and didn’t give Sirianni reason to turn to Scott.

Least favorite stat of the game:

Edge rushers: 3 QB hits, 2 tackles for loss, 0 sacks.

There’s not a whole lot of fault to be found after a 32-6 win, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be causes for concern. The interior linemen had a great day, so the pass rush as a whole was as expected, but given the state of the Falcons offensive line—and offense in general—a quiet day by the Eagles’ edge rushers was noteworthy. The constant rotation may have been a little too much, it’s not easy to get into a rhythm when the starters don’t play more than half of snaps (Josh Sweat was the only edge rusher to play more than 50% of snaps). This week should present another good opportunity for the pass rush, as the 49ers offense was 19th and 18th in the previous two seasons in sack rate, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s career sack rate of 7.1% is a poor mark.

Stat that may mean something for this week:

Last season against Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Daniel Jones, and Josh Allen—QBs who use their legs—the 49ers defense gave up 6.5 yards per carry to QBs. And that’s a little deflated by Allen (whose 4.1 rushing attempts per game last season was the lowest rate of those four), who had just 11 yards on 6 carries in a game where he threw 4 TDs. Over five games Murray, Wilson and Jones averaged 7.2 yards per carry, and each had a run of at least 21 yards. That Jalen Hurts guy can run a bit.

Devonta Smith Rookie of the Year Watch

In my bold predictions post I laid out how Devonta Smith can win Offensive Rookie of the Year. In short, it’s really hard for WRs to win the award; voters want a rookie who puts up numbers on a competitive team; they pretty much have to start right away, and voters favor QBs and RBs. Smith’s best chances is the rookie QBs do not light the league on fire and neither top picked RB makes a case. Until it’s clear he’s not going to win it, I’ll keep track of that prediction. Devonta Smith is the most exciting draft pick in Eagles history and it’s not even close, no other draft pick in the history of the franchise has commanded the national attention he has because of what he did in college and not because of the position he plays.

16 more games to go but so far so good for Smith. All three starting rookie QBs lost and didn’t fill up the stat sheet. The top RBs by draft selection couldn’t get anything going. Elijah Mitchell struck first claim to be the out of nowhere rookie RB, but he’ll have to keep it up all year to get traction. At WR Ja’Marr Chase topped the leaderboard in receiving yards but Smith was second best. Those two and Jaylen Waddle all scored a TD in a win. No one wins a season long award in Week 1 but everything went perfectly for a WR to win OROY.