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How Nick Sirianni doesn’t outsmart himself

In the NFL not dumb = smart

Green Bay Packers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There’s an article that I come back to every once in a while for big picture purposes. It’s almost a decade old and has nothing directly to do with football, but its application is evergreen. Really, it’s just a line from it.

You gain more by not being stupid, than you do by being smart.

Or to put it another way, being really smart is hard. Being not dumb is considerably easier, and has great benefits. It raises your floor, reduces your mistakes, and makes it hard for the opposition to beat you by capitalizing on your mistakes.

Which reminds me of this:

I would posit that the coaches that people think are pretty smart are not actually that smart and that they’re not particularly good coaches either. But that’s for another day.

Anyway, Nick Sirianni has done a fantastic job this season. He’s done it by basically following the philosophy of don’t do dumb stuff and good things will happen. He hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel (with one brilliant exception, which we’ll get to), instead week in and week out he and his team simply limit the stupid stuff. It’s obviously working.

It’s not the Xs and Os, it’s the Jimmy and Joes. I talked a bit about this last week but if you have excellent players, use them. This offense doesn’t mess around. 65% of pass attempts have gone to AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert, which is slightly deflated due to Goedert missing time.

By target ratio that makes them a fairly one dimensional passing game, for comparison the Vikings top three receivers have 60% of attempts, the 49ers 58%, and the Bills 54%, just to name a few. But then if you had the trio of pass catchers the Eagles have why waste plays going to lesser players if you don’t have to?

No galaxy brain stuff. Coaches on offense seem to love pulling out the most overthought plays in their playbook on 3rd down. A combination of short yardage that decreases the difficulty of the play, self-scouting tendencies and then attempting to go against them, and the overconfidence that they and they alone have the answers add up to some of the dumbest stuff you can imagine called at key times. The 4th string WR running the ball? Probably on 3rd down. A play designed specifically for the 2nd string TE? Probably on 3rd down. The wildcat in 2022 and not on the goal line? Probably on 3rd down. These are coaching malpractices.

Sirianni’s greatest overthinking it sin is that 3rd down is only 5% of Miles Sanders touches are on 3rd down but 24% of Kenneth Gainwell’s are.

Blunt force trauma. The Jalen Hurts kneel down formation “sneak” is simply brilliant and beautifully old school, borrowing a page from the sport’s rugby origins. Again Sirianni has excellent players and he uses everything he can out of them, this is the ultimate not messing around play. No QB can get through a pile like Jalen Hurts and his 600lb squat can, and the Eagles have an excellent interior line to open up space for Hurts and squat ability. In this, Sirianni has reinvented the wheel, just about everyone runs that play now. The Colts use it with Matt Ryan! Generally the NFL takes ideas from college football, but on this it is the other way around, college teams have added this to their playbook.

We need to stop calling it a sneak. Everyone knows it’s coming. That’s the exact opposite of a sneak.

Manage the clock. When the Eagles have a comfortable lead in the 4th quarter, they sit on it. They have run the ball 151 times in the 4th quarter and have just 48 pass attempts. This is a huge extreme. The Vikings, owners of the second best record in the league, have run it just 87 times in the 4th to 123 passing attempts; the Cowboys, with the league’s best point differential, have run it 100 times and passed it 93 times; the Bills, the AFC’s best team, have run it 98 times and passed it 100. All those teams have played about 200 snaps in the fourth quarter and have about a 50/50 run/pass ratio. The Eagles have a 75/25 run/pass ratio. Those figures do include kneel downs, but the Eagles do not have a disproportionate amount of kneels. And it’s not entirely down to Jalen Hurts running, he has 36 non-kneel down rushing attempts while Josh Allen has 21.

It’s because most teams with a solid lead just keep playing regular football. On Monday night the Saints had a 16-3 lead and the ball with 6:54 to go. Over their two remaining possessions they handed the ball off twice and threw four times. They lost, with the Buccaneers scoring a TD with 8 seconds to go.

The Eagles don’t do this. And I think that’s a big reason why they haven’t blown a second half, let alone a fourth quarter lead so far this season. Some teams have come close, the Lions, Jaguars, Cardinals, and Packers gave them a scare in the 4th quarter. But the Eagles were able to hold on in part because they owned the clock.

-Following a Lions TD the Eagles got the ball with 3:51 up 3 and ran on every play, the Lions never got the ball back, and it was the Eagles second longest possession of the game by time.

-Following a Jaguars TD, the Eagles got the ball with 7:51 to go up 8. They ran the ball nine times and passed only twice, one of which was on 4th down, and used up 5:25 of game time, their second longest of the game. When the Jaguars got the ball there was only 1:54 to go with no timeouts, and they were on their own 21 yard line. A Haason Reddick sack-fumble sealed the win, but even if he hadn’t I like the Eagles odds with that much of the field to go with no timeouts against Darius Slay and James Bradberry.

-Following a Cardinals TD the Eagles got the ball back with 9:43 to go up 3. The Eagles ran the ball 13 times and passed just 3, using up 7:58 of the clock, their longest drive of the game. When the Cardinals got the ball they had 1:45 to go, no timeouts, and the ball on their own 25. They missed a field goal to tie, but Kyler Murray only passed for a first down on 2 of his 5 attempts, 24 of their 50 yards were on Murray runs.

-Following a Packers TD (sensing a theme here?) the Eagles got the ball back with 8:55 to go. They had a 6:44 drive, their longest of the game (sensing another theme here?), that ended with a field goal and they kicked off with 2:16 to go and a 10 point lead.

In the four games the Eagles came closest to blowing a lead, the offense got the ball at least midway through the 4th quarter and kept the ball on the ground, and if the other team got the ball back at all they had to run a 2 minute drill to try to tie the game.

There’s some dumb football out there. No one is immune from doing stupid things, but Nick Sirianni has rarely beat himself. By not being stupid, he’s gained a lot. That makes him pretty smart.

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