ARLINGTON, Texas — Nick Sirianni was raging on the Eagles’ sideline in the second quarter Monday night, screaming at referee Brad Rogers over a first-down catch for the Cowboys that should have been ruled incomplete immediately. Sirianni’s own team had done enough to damage its chances of winning by then, and maybe the young coach couldn’t take having an obvious officiating error go against him, too.
The call was eventually overturned, and on a night when the team the Eagles fancy as their fiercest rival bullied and humiliated them at AT&T Stadium, that replay review qualified as a bona fide highlight, one of a precious few. This 41-21 crushing at the Cowboys’ hands was the worst of worlds for the Eagles, a clear signal of how far they have to go and how long it could take them to get back to being respectable.
That’s all it would take to compete in the NFC East: respectability. The Giants are 0-3 and awful. Washington lost its starting quarterback, and its defense has been shredded each week. But after these last two games, after Sirianni’s too-cute play-calling cost them against the 49ers and Dallas simply destroyed them, the Eagles are putting on full display the limitations of their roster and the confusion within their culture. They’re not good enough to get away with the mistakes that they too often make, and those errors are putting Sirianni and his coaches, a staff still trying to establish credibility, at a crossroads.
This season was always going to be a test for the Eagles’ inexperienced people in important positions, for those whose futures with the franchise were still undetermined, and these three games have shown everyone something about those people. Jordan Mailata and DeVonta Smith seem to have the stuff to stick around a while. Jalen Reagor, from his zigzagging punt returns to his uncertain pass routes, makes one wonder what the Eagles saw in him to make him a first-round pick. Jalen Hurts relies too much on his first read being open, isn’t accurate enough on intermediate throws — the out he tried to throw to Smith that Trevon Diggs intercepted and returned 59 yards for a touchdown was too far to the inside — and his deep passes tend to flutter and descend like tipsy pigeons. Jonathan Gannon, the new defensive coordinator, has some creativity to go with his blitz schemes. His unit lost its mano a mano matchups to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offensive line Monday night. Let’s see what Gannon can do if and when his personnel is better.
But it’s Sirianni who still has the most questions swirling around him, and he did little to answer any of them Monday. If anything, questions multiplied, and the scrutiny that he will face for his answers increased. He has spent a lot of time over the last two weeks in blatant attempts to show everyone that he’s a Philly guy, mostly through his wardrobe choices: an Allen Iverson shirt last week, a “Beat Dallas” shirt this week.
That’s a cheap and easy way to curry favor with a fan base that loves to be stroked, that wants to see its passion reflected in its coaches and athletes, and with those individuals and outlets in the media who are happy to lead the cheers for a coach who gets it. By all available indications, he’s a nice guy, and he’s affable and open in his press conferences, and those qualities will buy him a certain grace period from the public. But the proof of Sirianni’s staying power will be in his ability to improve this team. There isn’t much evidence yet that he can.
So what will you do, Nick, now that your team has 35 penalties, the most in the NFL and a franchise record through a season’s first three weeks? After serial infractor Derek Barnett committed another penalty Monday, one of ESPN’s cameras caught Sirianni muttering to himself on the sideline: “It’s always him.” Yes, it is. So what are you going to do about it? From the sound of it, not much.
“It was my frustration with our team as a whole,” Sirianni said, “and it starts with me. It’s my responsibility to get the penalty thing right. It’s on me. I don’t blame any player for that.”
While Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were gashing the Eagles defense, putting the lie to the notion that an offense that wants to pile up yards and points wastes its time by running the football, Sirianni unfurled an ideal first quarter of play-calling for Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman: nine plays, not a single handoff to a running back. Miles Sanders carried the ball twice all game. With a quarterback making just his seventh NFL start, a quarterback who struggles to throw the ball downfield, it was malpractice not to use Sanders more, not to try to alleviate the pressure on Hurts.
That play sequencing might as well have been pulled from the worst of Doug Pederson or Andy Reid eras, with a single-minded approach that never took the circumstances of a particular game and opponent, or even Sirianni’s own team, into account. The people who hired him prefer, even insist on, this strategy. So at what point might he dare to declare himself his own man, his own coach? Does he have the confidence and cachet to do that? Will he ever?
“It’s still early,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “We’ve just got to grow up fast.”
If they can. Three weeks into the NFL season, the Eagles are 1-2, and no one knows yet where they are headed and where this head coach might take them. That’s a scary place for a team to be. Now Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs come to town. Then Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Monday might have been only the beginning.