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Stockholm Syndrome With Nick Sirianni

How I’ve tried to bring pragmatism into Lurie’s decision to keep Nick

Eagles fans find themselves in disarray after one of the most historic late-season collapses of all time. In hindsight, there were signs that the collapse was inevitable, which has put the decisions the organization has made in its wake under even more scrutiny.

After a brutal seven weeks to end the season, Eagles fans find themselves watching other teams move deep into the postseason as they (im)patiently wait for a new league year. With such dissatisfaction with the season’s conclusion - and the aftermath - here are ~2000 words of what I’ll be keeping in mind to stay grounded over the next month and a half. Take them to heart, or with a grain of salt. We all need to find our own way to get us through to HOWIE SZN.

Sirianni Likely did NOT Lose the Locker Room

Before I get into this, I was pretty indifferent to whether or not Nick got fired. Both paths had significant upside and drawbacks. But now that he is returning, it’s important to address the most widely cited reason for firing him - the idea that he lost the locker room during the team’s collapse.

The product on the field clearly showed a team that lacked any kind of punch and tenacity down the stretch. But that alone is not enough to conclude the locker room was lost. The offense, for all of its struggles with the scheme, still tried. Even in the debacle against the Bucs, D’Andre Swift and Dallas Goedert were fighting through contact. DeVonta Smith had 8 catches for 148 yards (18.5 yards/rec). And given the terrible weather they faced all season, the brutality of the schedule, and the age at key positions, it’s fair to wonder if they were simply exhausted. All told, if there was one player on offense that appeared to quit, it was Hurts (which is obviously a problem - more on that in a bit.)

You could make an argument that the defense quit - but on whom? Patricia is notoriously unlikeable, and unfortunately the Eagles are an organization where it’s not particularly clear who installed him as the de facto defensive coordinator. Muddying the waters is the fact that Desai was demoted and not fired outright. Seriously, when does that happen in the NFL? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach get demoted, unless it was the head coach taking over playcalling duties. Given how late in the offseason Patricia was hired, and the circumstances surrounding his promotion to defensive coordinator, it is at the very least plausible Sirianni was forced to demote Desai. Defensive players had choice words for both Desai and Patricia throughout the season, but not Sirianni.

Likewise, the offense never - and I mean never - turned on Sirianni. In every interview and press conference, the players took full accountability every single time. A.J. Brown went as far as to point out how the coaches “don’t play any snaps” during one interview. There were no shots fired publicly at other position groups, no Twitter drama (from what I recall), no players-only meetings where the coaches were eviscerated.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how rare it is to see a room full of high-performing alpha personalities handle a collapse of that magnitude with such consistent professionalism, class, and grace. That’s something that can only happens from the top-down, which speaks volumes of the culture Sirianni managed to establish. Compare this to the 49ers, who whined for months after their meltdown in the NFC Championship Game last year. Many Eagles fans surmised the constant complaining was reflective of the attitude of their head coach - if that is true, than Sirianni is owed the same benefit of the doubt for the conduct of the team during its collapse.

The outlier here - again - is Jalen Hurts. There were certainly reports of his frustration with the offense, how he was audibling and improvising plays, how rifts were forming between him and old friend Brian Johnson. Given the brash simplicity of the system that had no answers for defensive adjustment, this frustration was warranted. And while nobody likes a malcontent at quarterback, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Jalen Hurts has a Seat at the Table

Although many dissected Hurts’ straight-faced response to questions about Nick Sirianni’s future, it is worth mentioning that he is being paid much, much more by Lurie, and the team has invested significantly more resources in Hurts than Sirianni. How likely is it that Lurie would bring Nick back if Hurts was against playing for him?

It also stands to reason that Hurts will at the very least be informed of the offensive coordinator hiring process. The Eagles’ brain trust likely has some idea of what Hurts wants to see in the offense, and will cater the coaching staff to his strengths, limitations, and coaching style. There were many lessons learned with Carson Wentz’s meltdown that I am sure Lurie and Roseman will take care not to repeat with Hurts, who by all indications has the mental makeup to handle change.

Of course, leveraging Hurts’ dissatisfaction with the offense in coaching hires only works if Hurts acts in good faith and holds up his end of the bargain. The reports that Hurts’ stoicism was an issue once the team faced significant adversity shouldn’t be taken lightly, and if he wants to imply that the root cause was the coaching staff, then he needs to play ball with the new one. This, in my opinion, will be the biggest thing to watch moving forward. The Eagles are tied to him for several more seasons, and if the reports that his new contract “changed” him are true, then the likelihood this disaster occurs again increase dramatically. Especially if the Eagles end up overhauling the coaching staff more often with the new reported leadership structure. Speaking of which...

The “CEO” Head Coach is Not a Bad Thing

Much has been made of the implication that Nick will have less say in the schematic structure of the offense, as Lurie moves him more into a “CEO” type role. This has caused much ire with the fans, who have interpreted this move as an indictment of his intelligence and a relegation to the role of a cheerleader. There has also been much hand-wringing over the fear that if the Eagles offense and defense are any good, their coordinators will get poached.

The first claim that Sirianni is essentially an idiot doesn’t really hold water. For starters, he does not come from any kind of NFL pedigree, meaning that his rise up the coaching ranks has likely been on merit. The fact that Lurie - who has an impressive track record for hiring head coaches - brought him on board should dispel that notion by itself. The “cheerleader” epithet just shows that we as fans don’t often consider everything that goes into running a football team. The CEO coach’s primary job is to put both coaches and players in a position to succeed, and understanding the balance between handholding and autonomy for each individual. On top of that, he is responsible for the primary team-building philosophy, which manifests in everything from meetings to training camp to practices to scouting to film study to, yes, play-calling. Many teams, such as the Ravens, Steelers, Titans, and Lions, have shown that this approach can be successful with the right circumstances.

Speaking of philosophy, the fact remains that Sirianni’s is, on the whole, a good one. Work to your players’ strengths, focus on the basics, and don’t make things more complicated than they need to be. The issue in 2023 was, for reasons we may never fully know, that this philosophy was applied poorly and painted the team into a corner. All of the parts were so basic and interconnected that when one thing failed, everything failed, and there were no avenues to adapt or change. Sirianni appears to have recognized this: that his balance of handholding to autonomy was off and that there is such a thing as being too simple. Fixing it is another matter (he’s off to an interesting start with the Fangio and Moore hires), but it is at least better than Doug Pederson’s desire to double down on his homegrown staff.

As for the concerns that if the coordinators get poached, the Eagles will need to “start over” on both sides of the ball... That is, literally, the price of success. Seriously, what’s the alternative? The team fails and everyone gets fired? “Poached coordinators” is the definition of a good problem to have.

One might say that having play-calling and schematic control with the head coach insulates against this problem, but that’s not necessarily true either. We’ve all lived it! Doug Pederson lost Frank Reich and John DeFilippo in a single offseason and the offense never recovered, in spite of it being “Doug’s offense” with him as play-caller. What Eagles fans seem to want is an offensive genius in the mold of Reid, McVay, or Shanahan. But those have proven harder to come by. The Shanahan-McVay knockoffs of the league - O’Connell, McDaniel, LaFleur, and Taylor, have yet to replicate their mentors’ success (and Shanahan himself has found the Lombardi trophy elusive thus far). Andy Reid hasn’t had an assistant hired away as head coach since Matt Nagy in 2018. The more the Eagles cycle through coaches to find the next great offensive mind, the less attractive the job will become to promising coaches that find themselves in a seller’s market.

So the Eagles stick with Sirianni, who they hope continues to grow into the steady CEO role exemplified by John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin. And who can blame them? It’s hard to go against what brings you consistency in the NFL, and that’s because it’s hard to win in the NFL - something the Eagles have been able to do under Sirianni.

Winning Is Hard

This phrase gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not sure how much people actually appreciate it. If we look back across Lurie’s ownership, after 5 season he hired Andy Reid, who immediately brought the team four years of NFC dominance. Whether we want to admit it or not, Sirianni has come the closest since then to delivering that kind of success consistently. Consider:

  • After three seasons, Sirianni owns the Eagles’ best head coaching record (36-20, 0.643, regular and postseason). The next closest is Greasy Neale, who won two NFL championships (61-40-4, 0.600).
  • Under Sirianni, the Eagles had their first consecutive 11+ win seasons since 2003-2004.
  • In Sirianni’s three seasons, the Eagles have played in 5 playoff games. This is one fewer than Doug Pederson in his 5 seasons, and two more than the entire span of 2009-2017, which were the years between their NFC Championship loss to the Cardinals and their Super Bowl season under Doug.
  • They held (or were tied for) the league’s best record for 30 straight weeks (Week 1 of 2022 to Week 13 of 2023).

In short, Lurie has been chasing this kind of sustained success since the Eagles lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl 39. Even considering how calamitous the collapse was, it would be really hard for an owner to walk away from that over a single seven game stretch. And for those who might say it was all Steichen, Sirianni hired Steichen! That is literally his job as a CEO coach - put together the right staff for the roster he is given. He has shown he can do it once, is it really so absurd to give him an opportunity to do it again? What are the odds that some hotshot candidate is able to “push the right buttons” in the way Sirianni did for 30 straight weeks? Lurie knows those odds after 30 years of ownership, and he seems to think they are low enough that it’s better to roll the dice one more time with Nick. I can’t say I really fault his reasoning.

Closing Thoughts

So after writing almost 2000 words about the thought process for keeping Sirianni, I still stand by my indifference for keeping him or canning him. Why? Because, in light of what I wrote above, the real argument for firing him is “to get the bad taste out of our mouth.” And while that may seem like a kneejerk reaction, I do think there’s some validity to it. There is something to be said for wanting to rebuild fresh out of the rubble and ashes, and I could have talked myself into that, just as I have been able to talk myself into keeping Sirianni.

What other coaches may think is another story. They know better than anyone how hard it is to achieve what Sirianni has in three years. Seeing Lurie blow that all up over a seven game stretch would put him into similar conversation as the Haslams, at least for the foreseeable future. And it certainly would put Roseman’s apparent immunity to blame under the spotlight. He is, after all, partly to blame for the defense’s problems in 2023, but would have escaped the repercussions dealt to Sirianni.

Ultimately, this time I around I do think those optics played a role in the decision to keep Nick. How much of a role, we will never know, but it was likely not insignificant. That may seem as much of a kneejerk as firing him, but at the end of the day Lurie has rarely erred in these decisions since he bought the Eagles.

Only time will tell if that trend continues.

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