Don’t judge a coach by a press conference. It’s a rule of thumb I’ve had since Andy Reid’s early days. But some rules of thumb were meant to be broken, which brings me to Nick Sirianni, and Doug Pederson, and Chip Kelly, and the breath of fresh air that seems to be coursing through the Eagles organization right now.
None of the following things is evidence that the Eagles made the right move in hiring a 40-year-old coach without a day of NFL play-calling experience.
His admission that he judges draft prospects’ competitiveness by playing them in Rock Paper Scissors.
His “No One Likes Us and We Don’t Care” T-shirt.
His Gooberific introductory press conference.
His Jalen Hurts T-shirt.
His breakdown of Brandon Brooks’ pectoral strain.
His Allen Iverson T-shirt.
Taken together, though, I can’t help but think back to an interview that Lane Johnson gave to the NFL Network before the start of training camp. Like a lot of people, I was curious how NFL veterans like Johnson and Brandon Graham and Rodney McLeod would react to Sirianni’s style, which at times felt like it was walking a dangerously thin line between Ted Lasso and Michael Scott. Coming out of spring OTAs, Johnson left little doubt about the impression that the Eagles’ new coach was creating internally.
“Every day’s fun,” the veteran left tackle said. “During practice, there’s always some type of competition period. Sometimes even the coaches get out there and compete, too, so that’s what I like about it. Going into the building, man, it’s been really cool.”
Of course, if good vibes won football games, every owner would be in the market for the next Jimmy Buffett. But the first two weeks of the season have raised the distinct possibility that Sirianni’s act isn’t an act at all. Maybe he is simply a guy who understands that you can take your job seriously without taking yourself the same way. And maybe that’s exactly what this Eagles organization needs right now.
Let’s go back to the beginning. My experience has taught me that there is approximately zero correlation between a coach’s ability and his press conference style. Look no further than two of the winningest coaches in the history of this city.
When Reid arrived in 1999, he made himself an easy target. In front of the klieg lights and the camera lenses, the Eagles’ new inexperienced head coach was a gruff, throat-clearing, injury-reporting, answer-avoiding bore who seemed like he would never last in a town whose heart pumped to the frequency of sports talk radio signals. Behind the scenes, though, Reid was a coach whose loyalty, authenticity and acumen made him a leader who was beloved for his management style and respected for his strategic mastery.
Likewise with Charlie Manuel. Where the world saw a bumbling, stuttering backwoods rube who couldn’t double switch his own socks, the Phillies clubhouse saw a man who could and would do anything in his power to put each individual player in the best possible position to succeed.
So, no, a press conference is rarely a comprehensive reflection of who a coach is behind the scenes. But it can give you a taste of his strengths and shortcomings. And Sirianni’s suggest that he’s a guy who won’t be a victim of the flaw that felled the last two Eagles coaches.
Stylistically, Pederson and Kelly were about as different as two coaches could be. But one thing they shared in common was a tendency to take themselves too seriously. Both men bristled at criticism, a trait that belies a deep-seated internal crisis of confidence. If you were a psychologist, it would take you about half of a session to pinpoint the roots. Kelly, the former small-school head coach, arrived in the NFL from a gimmicky college with a gimmicky system. Pederson, the former third-string quarterback, arrived without any play-calling experience and just a few years removed from coaching high school ball in Louisiana.
Both turned out to be good coaches, but neither could completely outrun his insecurities. Kelly was so single-minded that he forgot about the importance of human things like Christmas parties and talking to players. Pederson, meanwhile, never seemed to be able to figure out how to handle the Carson Wentz-Jalen Hurts dynamic. Neither of these things came as a surprise to anyone who watched them in a press conference setting, where Kelly consistently tried to act like he was the smartest person in the room and Pederson consistently tried to act the way he thought a football coach was supposed to act.
Conversely, Sirianni comes across as a human being, one who understands the things that matter and the things that don’t, one who doesn’t give a flip about the opinions of people who are unable to make the same distinction. The day after Sunday’s 17-11 loss to the 49ers, he volunteered that he felt like he’d made a mistake by calling a gadget play on fourth-and-goal that resulted in a wildly incomplete pass from Greg Ward to Hurts.
“I don’t feel great about that call,” Sirianni said. “That’s a gadgety call right there. Again, don’t feel great about that call.”
Earlier in the press conference, Sirianni volunteered that one of his starting guards would likely end up on injured reserve with a pec injury, but that it was unlikely to be a season-ending injury. He didn’t need to say anything more than, “Brandon Brooks is week to week.” But he did.
Tying it all together were Sirianni’s thoughts on accountability.
“If I want the players to do it, I need to do it first,” he said. “I’ve got to lead by example.”
The results suggest that his team is buying in. On Sunday, the Eagles went toe-to-toe with one of the best-coached teams in the NFL. Two weeks ago, they trounced a team whose rookie coach had arrived with the play-calling experience that Sirianni lacked. Arthur Smith and the Falcons are now 0-2. Over in Detroit, Dan Campbell is 0-2. Urban Meyer is 0-2 in Jacksonville. Robert Saleh is 0-2 with the Jets. Combined, those four teams have a point differential of minus-125. Each has been outscored by at least 24 points through the first two weeks of the season. Each looks like a lock to be picking inside the top 10 in next year’s draft.
Like Reid and Manuel at the start of their tenures, it’s impossible to predict how Siranni’s style will evolve. The important thing is that it’s working.