First-time head coach and play-caller Nick Sirianni, pass-happy football theorist, has taken the first step toward being a competent NFL head coach. After a 2-5 start, he finally recognized the strengths, realized the limitations of his roster, game-planned accordingly, and ran the damned ball.
Failure breeds humility.
Will success rekindle arrogance?
Sirianni stopped asking his young, reconstructed offensive line to endlessly protect a skittish young passer with an unremarkable arm and zero established wide receivers. Sirianni went run-heavy behind guards and tackles who average 6-foot-6 and almost 340 pounds, anchored by athletic Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce. He leaned on power runners Jordan Howard and Boston Scott, who, between them, had seven carries in the first seven games.
The results: 626 rushing yards in the last three games. Two wins and 98 points, plus a strong loss to the Chargers. Scott and Howard combined for 74 carries for 332 yards and five touchdowns.
They’ve gained 276, 176, and 215 rushing yards against the Lions, Chargers, and Broncos. The last time the Eagles ran for 175 yards or more in three straight games was 2017, a season that ended with their only Super Bowl win.
The Eagles stand one game out of an NFC wild-card playoff spot. We’ve seen big steps forward for second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, who needed to be benched for his own good if Sirianni hadn’t not seen the light.
» READ MORE: Eagles should bench Jalen Hurts | Marcus Hayes
The question: Will Sirianni, and maybe Hurts, take a step backward when the Saints visit Sunday?
After Jeffrey Lurie hired him out of nowhere in January, Sirianni largely evaded questions about the type of offense he would install. In May, however, he promised that he would not try to make lemonade with tomatoes: “Our job as coaches is to adapt to the players we have.”
Stocked with massive blockers and experienced running backs, Sirianni called passing plays for Hurts more than 70% of the time in the first seven games. It was like asking a VW bug to tow Doug Pederson’s fishing boat.
Hurts fell to the second round in 2020 largely because of his deficiencies as an NFL passer: arm strength, mechanics, pocket presence, processing. Predictably, when asked to do too much, Hurts struggled and the offense stunk.
Hurts’ passer rating in the first seven games was 89.5, when he averaged more than 34 attempts per game. In the last three games he has a 102.6 rating and he has averaged 18 attempts per game. In a game driven by numbers, these numbers seem pretty clear.
Especially after Sunday.
There was a real chance that Sirianni would abandon his new downhill running scheme in Denver. The Broncos ranked sixth against the run.
Sirianni stayed with the run. Kudos. The New Nick sure seems a lot smarter than the Old Nick.
Of course, that bar was pretty low.
Sirianni’s missteps aren’t limited to misusing his offensive players. He’s bungled timeout usage and replay decisions. He’s allowed defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to remain passive. He’s said some wacky stuff.
His worst moments came in Las Vegas, when he accepted a penalty instead of a punt, and gave away a game with an onside kick to open the second half.
All of those mistakes apparently spurred Sirianni’s humility.
They also seem to have erased his memory. Asked Monday why he is running so much now, he answered as if Games 1 through 7 never happened.
“That always starts with what you think you do well,” said Sirianni, who, of course, was wrong for seven weeks about what his offense did well.
“We’ve known we had a good offensive line the whole time,” he continued.
Really? And you didn’t use it?
“We’ve always wanted to get the run game going,” he continued.
Hard to believe, Harry.
Asked about his team suddenly leading the NFC in rushing, Sirianni acted like he’d been riding his backs all year long.
“That just doesn’t happen after three good games,” Sirianni said.
Yes, actually, it does.
“I don’t want to say it’s a shift,” Sirianni said.
Why not? Eagles running backs got just three total carries against the Cowboys in Game 3. Featured back Miles Sanders, who averaged almost 14 carries in 2020, averaged just nine carries in the seven games before he got hurt.
It takes courage and wisdom to admit when you’re wrong. So, maybe Sirianni isn’t brave enough to actually admit that he was wrong about his offense and his quarterback, but he’s wise enough to recognize it.
Humbled, Sirianni now has a chance to salvage the 2021 season and Hurts’ budding career.
That is, if this humility lasts.