Just last week, a text message from Nick Sirianni popped up on Todd Haley’s smartphone. It contained a video of the desktop computer screen in the coach’s office.
On the monitor was film from a 2008 game between the Cardinals and Seahawks. Arizona was down near the goal line and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald motioned outside into one-on-one coverage. He shuffled his feet, took one step in, broke out, and before he turned the ball was in the air. The cornerback never stood a chance.
The screen cut immediately to a Colts-Titans game this season. Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton was similarly split wide near the goal line. He ran at the defender, shuffled his feet — just as Fitzgerald did — and drifted into the corner. His route wasn’t an exact replica, but the result was the same.
The video was silent, but Haley needed no explanation. Sirianni was referencing a route concept his mentor had long ago taught him — maybe 20 years back when they first met — and how they would each successfully pass it on to NFL receivers they coached.
“It’s little technique things and, to me, after all these years that Nick sent me the video of Larry running the most perfect fade down inside the 10, and then comparing it to T.Y., who he’s coaching, I think that’s pretty impressive,” Haley said. “That’s just how Nick is. He’s a football junkie.”
A few days later, the Eagles would see firsthand Sirianni’s obsession with the game and the attention to detail Haley illustrated. Team brass interviewed the Colts offensive coordinator over two days last week in West Palm Beach, Fla., and it’s likely those characteristics played a significant role in Sirianni becoming the franchise’s 22nd head coach.
The 39-year-old’s background and career path might not be unique to NFL coaches. His father and two brothers all coached football at some level. His 17 years in the profession included many stops and a steady rise through the ranks. And the same could even be said of his all-consuming devotion to his craft.
But Sirianni’s story is all his own, and at least in terms of the NFL, uniquely began at the YMCA near Chautauqua Lake, not far from his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y.
Haley had been spending summers vacationing there for years. His father, Dick, who played in the NFL and was later director of player personnel for the Steelers, bought a cottage not long after Pittsburgh won its fourth Super Bowl after the 1979 season. The younger Haley and his wife would eventually purchase one themselves and would make the annual 2½-hour trek north.
They worked out at the YMCA, and in the early 2000s, when he was the receivers coach with the Bears, Haley had noticed the young, strapping Sirianni working out himself. Little did he know, the then-Division III receiver was waiting for the opportune moment to approach him.
“Finally, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m a receiver at Mount Union,’ ” Haley recalled. “He was asking for advice on how to be a better receiver and I gave him some drills and some things he could do to improve his play. … And every summer that same cycle happened during our vacation.
“And then he was out of school and he said, ‘I’m thinking about coaching.’ ”
Sirianni started as a defensive backs coach at Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, and then left to become the receivers coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was around that time, Haley said, he told his wife that if he ever had the chance, he would hire Sirianni as an assistant and bring him to the NFL.
“You do a lot of things by gut, and there was something when Nick kept coming up to me,” Haley said. “Sometimes you would be annoyed — not by him, but in other situations. But there was something about him that made me say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something that’s unique and special about this guy.’ ”
They shared a common football ancestry, and were raised in familiar hotbeds, but Sirianni’s persistence and obvious passion stood out the most. And when Haley was named Chiefs head coach in 2009, he hired him as an offensive quality control coach.
While Haley wasn’t by Sirianni’s side for every moment of their three years together in Kansas City, he knew his experience because he had lived it. He once held the same job with the New York Jets under coach Bill Parcells, and brought with him to the Chiefs Bill Muir, the same offensive line coach who had savaged his film breakdowns.
But Sirianni had an advocate in Haley, who saw that he had the necessary work ethic, aptitude, and communication skills for the job. He took the then-single young assistant under his wing, into his family, and on his first trip to Las Vegas.
“It might have been his first flight,” Haley said, “because he was sitting across the row from us and he was panicking with every bump.”
Haley was fired 13 games into his third season, but Sirianni spent another year in Kansas City as coach Romeo Crennel’s receivers assistant. When that entire staff was also let go a year later, Haley, who had become the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, recommended Sirianni to new Chargers coach Mike McCoy.
Sirianni had to start over in quality control, but he was promoted in a year and would spend two seasons each overseeing quarterbacks and then receivers.
“The messages I gave Nick through those years was [that] this isn’t about a system, terminology, all those things,” Haley said. “It’s about, what do your players do the best? I think that’s what Nick has really done and made me proud and impressed me.
“You get a lot of coaches these days [that say], ‘This is what we do.’ They force a square peg into a round hole.”
In Kansas City, Haley’s offense was based on the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins system that became popular with the New York Giants under Parcells. By that point, it had morphed from a run-first scheme, but what did remain was the terminology.
In San Diego, McCoy ran a system that had West Coast bones but also incorporated ideas from the Air Coryell and other offenses. He would be fired after the 2016 season, but Sirianni was retained as receivers coach for one season before Frank Reich called.
The former Chargers and Eagles offensive coordinator had just gotten the Colts’ top job, and like Haley, knew while working with Sirianni in San Diego that when given the opportunity, he would hire him as an assistant.
Sirianni became Reich’s offensive coordinator, and while he didn’t call plays during his three years, the Colts offense had relative success with three quarterbacks — Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, and longtime Charger Philip Rivers.
“I don’t think who calls the plays is a big deal. I think it’s who has success,” Haley said. “In San Diego, coaching Keenan Allen and the receivers, his position group had great success. And in Indy, Jacoby Brissett had very good success, probably more success than people thought he would have.”
Haley hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2018 — he spent last season as the offensive coordinator at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla. — but he said he still watches the teams his friends coach. The Colts, he said, aren’t the most flashy, but they’re among the most consistent with few mistakes.
Sirianni doesn’t arrive in Philadelphia with an unconventional scheme, or an idiosyncratic personality, or a specific accounting of his coaching contributions. But Haley, while obviously biased, believes that details matter and his long-ago protégé has the chops to lead an NFL team.
“I don’t think it’s about innovation. It’s about being a good teacher, a good coach, a good communicator, and making those guys in the room — coaches and players alike — believe in what you’re selling,” Haley said. “And if you’re able to do that, you can get guys to raise up their ability from what they even thought they were capable of doing.”
Sirianni, in less than two decades, has gone from following Haley around a gym to leading an NFL team. Could he have gotten there without that initial meeting?
“I have no idea. Where there’s desire, there’s a way,” Haley said. “In the NFL, it’s about getting your foot in the door, but more importantly, once your foot’s in the door, it’s what you do with it.”