The first part of this Eagles season review focuses on their new head coach, Nick Sirianni. Check back tomorrow for the second part, which will cover the other parts of the Eagles.
I began following the Eagles in 2006. Since then, they have hired 3 head coaches, and every time I try to keep an open mind, regardless of the context surrounding their hiring. In their first season, I care less about results and more about motivation. Is the team buying what he is selling? Do they play hard every game, even when they are struggling? In most situations, a new coach is inheriting a bad team, so expecting instant success isn’t reasonable. However, expecting the team to be resilient in the face of adversity is reasonable. That is really what a coach needs to establish in his first season.
Nick Sirianni was no exception, and I was pleased with the job he’s done throughout the season. Yes, that does include those “first seven games” - more on that in a bit. First, in typical Eagles fan fashion, I want to highlight where I think Sirianni has room to improve (aside from his clunky press conferences and his terrible beard).
Avoiding the Vizzini Effect. In the classic 80s film, “The Princess Bride,” there is a memorable scene where the hero, Westley, gets involved in a wager with a con man named Vizzini. There are two chalices of wine, one of which Westley has secretly poisoned. Vizzini must then pick the ones from which they will drink, and goes on a rant for several minutes as he attempts to deduce Westley’s train of thought when he was poisoning the wine. (Spoiler: he ends up choosing... poorly. Westley tainted both chalices, as he had developed an immunity to the poison).
I dub this futile exercise of endlessly attempting to predict how your enemy will plan against you “the Vizzini Effect,” and Nick seemed to fall victim to it several times this season (including in the playoffs). Instead of trying to gameplan against the Bucs defense, he appeared to gameplan against how he thought the Bucs would gameplan against him. It’s the only logical explanation for blatantly ignoring DeVonta Smith early in the game (“They’re gonna focus on him, so we’re gonna give the ball to other players!”). He even admitted to falling victim to the Vizzini Effect against the Cowboys in Week 3 when he called a pass-heavy game because he “anticipated a shootout” - as opposed to using a ball control offense to limit Cowboys possessions.
Of course, coaches do need to consider to some extent what they expect the opposing defense to scheme up against their offense, but at times it seemed as if Nick tried to anticipate everything they would do. This galaxy brain approach to coaching isn’t how you beat tough opponents, and Nick will need to learn that soon if the Eagles want to continue making strides.
Dialing back gadget plays. At least once a game, a promising Eagles drive seemed to be snuffed out by an ill-timed jet sweep (usually to Reagor) or some other triple option nonsense that would set them up behind the sticks on second down. Additionally, while the Eagles had a decent red zone offense, they were atrocious in goal-to-go situations - indicating that they somehow were better at scoring touchdowns between the 10-20 yard line than from inside the 10. For whatever reason, Sirianni managed to call the worst plays when the goal line was right in front of him.
This was never more painfully obvious than in Week 2 against the 49ers, when the Eagles failed to score after they had a first down at the 1-yard line following an incredible 91-yard pass from Hurts to Watkins. Sirianni would be wise to remember KISS - “Keep it simple, stupid!” - and not try to prove to the world that he’s the smartest coach on the field, since he’s probably not.
Two Jobs, One Coach
But enough Negadelphia. What did Nick Sirianni do well? A lot, in my opinion - and that includes the infamous “first seven games.” It seemed any praise of Sirianni this season required the bumper sticker qualifier that he stunk in his first seven games before having some kind of miraculous epiphany halfway through the season. But I don’t see it that way. Before I launch into my explanation, it’s important to understand the two primary responsibilities of an NFL head coach:
- Get the most production out of the roster as possible. This is a big fat “duh,” and we hear coaches talk about this all the time, typically in some form of “putting players in a position to succeed.” Head coaches are most expected to accomplish this on teams with competitive rosters.
- Evaluate and develop the talent at all levels of the roster. This is the “lesser” of the two responsibilities, and usually the one taken when a team is not expected to compete. The front office needs to see what they currently have so they have a better understanding of how to improve in the offseason. It’s the coach’s job to provide that information in the form of the product on the field.
What’s interesting about these responsibilities is that they naturally contradict each other. If you’re playing your best players, your rookies are probably riding the bench, so you’re not evaluating them at all. On the other hand, if you need to evaluate your younger players or speed up their development, you have to play them, probably at the expense of a few wins your veterans could have earned you. The choice is binary - you’re stuck with one or the other.
That’s why, before every season, each team needs to decide what “hat” (visor?) they want the coach to wear, based on their expectations of the roster - and based on the what potential direction the front office can take the team in the future. That second part is important to understanding the first seven games. Sirianni didn’t magically change halfway through the season. The football landscape did.
An Evolving Situation
Let’s look at where the Eagles were before their first game against the Falcons:
- The defense was lacking talent, depth, or both at several key positions
- Jalen Hurts was still a relative unknown as a starting quarterback
- The Eagles had a good chance of securing 3 first round picks in 2022 that would allow them to grab a new quarterback, with Spencer Rattler headlining as the best prospect
- Their cap situation was improving, but still not good enough to trade for a veteran quarterback in the offseason without gutting their roster (more on this in Part II)
All of these factors point to a simple plan - use 2021 to evaluate Jalen Hurts as a passer and if he doesn’t cut the mustard, pull out the stops to grab Spencer Rattler in the 2022 draft. And this is what everyone was saying in August! 2021 is an “evaluation year.” Hurts would get “one year” to prove he can be a franchise passer with the Eagles. Well, if he only gets one year, doesn’t it make the most sense to throw the ball and see how he fares? To run a modern NFL offense and see if it “clicks”? To everyone who was screaming for Nick to run the ball - of course they could have run the ball! They were a team built to run the ball! You knew that, I knew that, the beat writers knew that, and certainly the coaches and players knew that.
But that’s not the hat Nick was asked to wear. He was tasked with evaluating Hurts as a passer, and you can’t really do that if he’s throwing 20 (or fewer) passes per game in a run-heavy, simple spread offense that doesn’t challenge him to make “NFL throws.” And yes, they could have started as running team and “eased in” the passing game, but if you’re looking to evaluate a quarterback in a single year, every game counts - especially if that is a higher priority than winning right now.
Of course, as we know, Nick did eventually start running the ball. So what happened? Here is a brief timeline of events in the football world in October as it pertains to the Eagles:
- Saturday, Oct 9: Spencer Rattler is benched for Caleb Williams in the Sooners’ thrilling win over Texas.
- Thursday, Oct 14: The Eagles, using their pass-heavy offense, fall to the Buccaneers.
- Saturday, Oct 16: Caleb Williams is officially the new starting quarterback for the Sooners and throws for 4 touchdowns against TCU.
- Sunday, Oct 24: The Eagles open their game against the Raiders with more runs, but Miles Sanders gets injured and Las Vegas jumps out to a big lead, forcing the Eagles to pass.
- Sunday, Oct 31: The Eagles explode for 44 points against the Lions to formally announce their new run-first philosophy. Jalen Hurts attempts 14 passes for 103 yards, 72 of which went to Dallas Goedert.
To me it seems reasonable that, as Rattler plummeted as a “sure-fire” quarterback prospect, the front office pulled the plug on drafting a quarterback with a high pick in 2022. Realizing that Hurts would likely get another year as the Eagles’ starter, they decided to change hats and maximize what they had on the roster to build team morale and culture. With the window of evaluation extended for Hurts, there was no reason to cram his passing development into a single season. It would also be a good exercise to see Nick’s ability to adapt his offense to the players he has, instead of hoping they’ll become the players he wants.
I don’t think they expected how explosive their run game would end up being, nor do I think they thought they could compete for a playoff spot. But that was certainly a nice development, and I think it was absolutely the right decision to make (the top QB prospects this year are a hard pass from me).
Nick is certainly not a perfect head coach. But he’s energetic, creative, and clearly seems to be a leader of men that knows how to instill a culture and motivate a locker room. His midseason transformation to smashmouth running offense was a masterstroke that hints at his ability to understand the situation at hand and adapt. Whether or not he can improve on his less desirable tendencies remain to be seen, but given the expectations going into the season I’m not sure how much more you could have asked of him this first year. I’m giving him an A- for his first year, and the only reason it’s not an A is because we saw some of those drawbacks rear their ugly heads against the Bucs in the playoff game.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and look out for “Part II” tomorrow!
Grade Nick Sirianni’s first year as head coach of the Eagles.
This poll is closed