I find it interesting that in some sports we call the person at the top of a team’s coaching organizational chart the Head Coach, and in other sports we call them the Manager. And though we use them to basically mean the same thing, they do have different meanings.
On Monday night, Nick Sirianni had probably his best game as the Eagles head coach, and his best game as the Eagles manager. He pushed all the right buttons.
Big game feel, big game performance
Unless a team is staring at digging themselves in a winless hole that unofficially puts them out of the playoffs, September football is too early to call a game a big game. But as September games go, this was a big game. Home opener, in prime time, against a QB who has caused the Eagles problems, and against one of the best WRs in the league with the subplot that the Eagles passed over him in the draft to take a bust. This game had as close to a playoff feel as you can get when the month portion of the calendar is in single digits.
Bill Walsh, almost certainly apocryphally, said that he could only motivate his players for four games a year, the implication being that a coach needs to keep a different handful of players motivated each week, the rest of the roster will take care of itself. So big credit for Nick Sirianni to get his players to come out of the gate on fire on both sides of the ball. Jalen Hurts was perfect in the first half, his only misses were a beautiful dime that was dropped and a totally reasonable back-the-safeties-up deep ball on first down to a guy who had 155 yards last week. The much maligned defense forced a three and out on the Vikings first two possessions. Jalen Hurts and Darius Slay, the leaders on the offense and defense, had the best games of their careers. Devonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, Quez Watkins, Kyzir White, and TJ Edwards all had strong games in support.
Whatever buttons he was pushing with players, he nailed it. The offense and defense both dominated the Vikings to start the game and, to borrow a phrase from Zech McPhearson, put the Vikings in a car seat. This was a chance for the Eagles to show they truly were improved from last year, and they looked like the best team in the NFC on Monday night. That’s good management.
When you see a chance, take it
In Doug Pederson’s book he wrote after winning the Super Bowl he described how before the NFC Championship Game he was watching the end of the first half of the AFC Championship Game when Doug Marrone got the ball back on his own 25 with 55 seconds to go in the half with a 14-10 lead and he took two knees to go to the locker room. Pederson said that he said to himself that if he was in that situation he would try to get points. Later that day, Pederson found himself in a similar position, he was up 21-7 with 29 seconds from his own 20. He went for it, calling three pass plays, and the half ended with a FG to make it 24-7.
Sirianni got the ball back with 1:21 in the half at his own 5. On the first play Jalen Hurts ran for 9 yards and the Eagles let the clock run down to 43 seconds before running the next play. With the team out of the danger zone of their own end zone if they had to punt, Sirianni seemed content to let the clock run down, not an unreasonable position given the circumstances, the Eagles ran the ball on two of the next three plays. On third and 6 from his own 37 with 28 seconds to go, Kevin O’Connell called bizarrely a time out. The Vikings were helpless in the first half, getting the Eagles to mail in a possession before regrouping in the locker room was probably his best move. Instead he gave Sirianni a chance to think it over. Sirianni has been an aggressive coach when given the opportunity, and O’Connell gave it to him. The Eagles called all pass plays for the rest of the half and ended the possession with a field goal. It was the second straight week the Eagles ended the first half with a FG after his counterpart called a bad time out and the Eagles responded by putting their foot on the gas.
Sirianni stole three points. Again. That’s good coaching.
Less is more
I think both of those can be attributed in part to Sirianni’s decision to give up play calling duties. Last season Sirianni, who had never called plays prior to last year, wisely realized he had too much on his plate. With Shane Steichen having prior play calling experience, wisely gave up the role to allow himself more control over the entire team and more space to think during games.
“What I noticed was, I wasn’t communicating with [Jonathan] Gannon about something, or I wasn’t communicating enough with the defense when they needed to be pumped up, or Coach [Michael] Clay, or the special teams.”
Is a Nick Sirianni who is thinking about the next play to call in the right frame of mind to switch from “run out the clock” mode to “take a shot” mode after the other team calls timeout near the end of the first half? Maybe he does, but it’s pretty easy to say that he doesn’t, just look at Nathaniel Hackett’s bumbling. Does a Nick Sirianni who spends a part of his week in a play caller state of mind have the focus to get his players in the right state of mind? Again maybe he does, but just as easily, maybe he doesn’t. Some of the best play callers struggle as head coaches because they don’t bring much else to the table besides play calling.
Being a head coach means being a control freak. It’s just part of the job. Most coaches aren’t able to swallow their pride and realize they need to hand over a high profile part of their job to someone else. Sirianni did, and it seems that it has made him a better coach and his team a better team. That’s good coaching and good management.
Sirianni had a good rookie season, and came into the game 1-0, so it would be unfair to call this game a potential turning point. And it will mean nothing if the Eagles stumble over the next few weeks. But if they enter their Week 7 bye with one of the best records in the league the way the schedule is set up for them to do, then we might look back at this game as when Sirianni and his team took the next step.