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GamePlan: How Nick Sirianni Earned the Eagles’ Trust


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GamePlan: How Nick Sirianni Earned the Eagles’ Trust

    Albert Breer
    22 hours ago

The Eagles weren’t trying to reinvent the coaching-search wheel in January 2021. If they’re being honest about it, more than anything, they were just scrambling to catch up.

Doug Pederson was fired on Jan. 11, a full week after the regular season ended. Three days after that, the Jaguars announced the arrival of Urban Meyer, the Jets officially took Robert Saleh off the market, and the Lions and Falcons were moving on Dan Campbell and Arthur Smith, respectively. Quietly, the Chargers, too, were readying to quickly hire Brandon Staley, as soon as the crosstown Rams’ ouster from the playoffs would allow it.

And because of all of that—and that the Eagles didn’t plan on a coaching search in the first place—Philly’s brass had to resolve to do things a little differently. So was hatched a simple premise that would guide the next few weeks for the team. They looked to approach their position not as the last team to the market in 2021, but the first team looking at diving into the ’22 candidate pool.

That, in a nutshell, is how Philly wound up with Nick Sirianni.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

The then Colts offensive coordinator hadn’t so much as interviewed for a head coaching job (the Browns requested one with him in 2019; it never happened) before the Eagles put in for him shortly after Pederson was let go. And Philly went into the interview itself with an open mind—in large part because a team in the Eagles’ position, with all the ’21 cycle’s hot candidates already plucked off the market, didn’t have any other choice.

Eagles GM Howie Roseman called Sirianni from owner Jeffrey Lurie’s place in Florida, and Sirianni told Roseman he was in the state, too, and could drive over, but needed to buy a suit because he didn’t bring one on his family vacation. "Do not buy a suit,” Roseman said. So, everyone dressed casual for the interview, and a few Sirianni quarterback tutorials later (he actually got up and physically demonstrated drills), the ball was rolling.

A year later, with the Eagles set to play the defending champion Buccaneers on Sunday, Sirianni is the only 2021 coaching hire in the postseason. And to be clear, no one in the Philly organization is throwing a party for themselves over the hire—Pederson’s fall from grace is a good example of how quickly things can turn. But with seven teams and counting looking for head coaches now, there are good lessons to be taken here.

Take it from the players.

"For me, it wouldn’t have mattered who came into the head coach position, just because of where I was at in my career last year,” left tackle Jordan Mailata told me after practice Wednesday. "But, man, am I glad we picked him up. He’s been awesome. Just everything that he coaches and preaches, we all buy into it.”

And remember, there was a time when few on the outside did.

It’s playoff time, and that gives us plenty to bring you in this week’s GamePlan. Among those things …

• A look at the full gamut of games, starting with an old rivalry renewed.

• Story lines to follow, including Rich Bisaccia’s shot to make his case in Las Vegas.

• My (again shaky) gambling advice.

• Where Jameson Williams stands after tearing his ACL.

But we’re starting with what we can all learn from what Sirianni brought to the table last year.

There were times over the last year when, to be frank, it did not look like the Eagles got it right with Sirianni. He definitely didn’t win the introductory press conference, and after a season-opening win over Smith and the Falcons, the Eagles lost three straight. They were 2–5 through seven games. They were 3–6 through nine games. Before long, their position in the draft and Deshaun Watson sweepstakes was a bigger story than the games in Philly.

Everyone had buried them for 2021—except for those in the building.

"That’s what we leaned on, staying together,” safety Rodney McLeod said over the phone on Thursday. "When everyone else is turning on us, we really stayed true to our process. Something Coach always talked about, double down on the preparation, double down on your study habits, double down on how you practice, because it’s gonna pay off, it’s only a matter of time. Don’t stray … we have the formula, we’re a good team.

"It’s a new-school feel, a lot of younger guys, completely younger staff, and they’ve found little wrinkles that they like and that work. But at the end of the day, football is football, and I think the biggest challenge in being a leader is having your team believe. Can you do that constantly? They’re gonna believe when everything’s going well. It’s when you’re at your darkest moments—as a team, can you keep everyone together? Coach has done that.”

So that’s the easy part to decipher. The Eagles had it right, and a lot of others had it wrong.

What’s more complicated is getting to exactly how and why Philly had faith in Sirianni, and then why his players kept buying what he was selling, even if the short-term results weren’t there, which, of course, set the stage for what was to come.

The first piece for the Eagles was the background they had on the Colts’ OC in the first place, and it went well beyond what they gathered on the run last January. Their old offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, was Sirianni’s boss in Indy, and Reich raved about Sirianni in his two years with the Eagles, telling those in the building that Sirianni would be his first hire when he got his shot as a head coach—a promise he followed through on in 2018.

That connection also checked another box for the Eagles, in their belief that having such ties to candidates improved the chances that a marriage between coach and front office would work, since those recommending the candidate would have a better feel for how one might match up with another.

Then, there was Sirianni’s winning background (having played for perennial Division III national champion Mount Union), and his family history, having come from a house full of educators, which the Eagles knew would be important for a team trying to get younger. They’d also heard about his passion (they actually looked at a clip from the Colts’ website showing his over-the-top reaction to the drafting of Jonathan Taylor) and thought that it’d work in connecting with the generation of players coming into the league.

And that casual interview? It only confirmed all of this. Sirianni drove home how important his principles were to him—Compete, Compete, Connect, he told Lurie, Roseman and the brass—and by the time he stood up to physically play out the quarterback fundamental he was trying explain, the Eagles thought they were on to something. And their players would see soon enough.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Every coach is trying to sell his players something—and it’s easy for any coach to make his pitch. Getting them to buy it is harder, and, sure, there was a period of time when there might’ve been an arched eyebrow or two shot at Sirianni.

Then came the spring.

"Connect was a big thing for him,” Mailata said. "And we did think it could just be all talk. But when we came in person for OTAs, when we were allowed to come in, that’s when we really saw it. We came in and there was a bloody basketball hoop in front of the auditorium, there was table tennis, what’s the bean bag game? There was cornhole going on.

"And a couple of us, in the break, that five-week break after the OTAs period, we stayed and we connected, different groups—linebackers, O-linemen, D-linemen, tight ends; we stayed and we connected. Every guy who didn’t have anywhere else to go, or didn’t go home, we stayed and, man, did that build a bond. For me, that’s when I realized the small things that Coach did, putting the basketball hoop inside the auditorium, that stuff made a difference.”

To be sure, Sirianni’s not the first coach to put in a Ping-Pong table to build camaraderie.

The difference here, Mailata explains, was Sirianni’s ability to use those tools to build real relationships—not just surface friendships.

Back in May, I did a story on Sirianni in which he explained why he’d had his players film spoof MTV Cribs episodes to show their teammates where they lived and played a game called "Who Am I?” (players had to guess a teammate’s identity based on clues on their personal lives) to ensure guys were getting to know each other. They’d play H-O-R-S-E or knockout on that hoop, or have guys shoot free throws to earn the team a day off.

And if it was just those things alone, maybe pro athletes would see the ideas as kind of hokey. But Sirianni didn’t just ask that of his players, he also opened up to them and showed he wanted the coaches to have real relationships with the players, just as he wanted the players to have connections with each other. This, in turn, allowed him to show that he really wanted the relationships to be genuine, across the board.

"Coach just overemphasized how important it was, sharing stories about his life,” said Mailata. "Getting to know about Coach was crazy—I loved it. I love getting to know my coach. In each team meeting, he’d start off with a new story about the way he grew up, how he grew up, friends and moments of his life that taught him important lessons that he still values to this day. And passing the knowledge down to us young guys, it’s huge. It’s huge, when you have a coach who’s so passionate on connecting. …

"Nick being a young coach, he’s a lot more approachable. I’m not saying other coaches aren’t approachable. But it was a big thing.”

And the proof for Mailata came with all those guys who stuck around in Philly during the NFL’s summer vacation—guys hanging out because they wanted to, not because they had been scheduled to. It’s carried over since, too. Sirianni still does little things, like having everyone on the roster greet one another during Saturday night meetings.

"Going around, let’s get up and let’s dap each other up,” McLeod said. "We’re getting ready to go battle tomorrow and let’s show each other some love. And guys take it from the guy next to them all the way to the back of the room, and it goes on for about five minutes. … He’s forming that culture that’ll live on as long as he’s here.”

The payoff, for the coaches, has come in a number of ways.

The obvious place to start with the team’s benefit from how Sirianni has tied it together is, again, that rough start. No one expected much from the Eagles, seemingly in the midst of a rebuild, before the season started. The way Philly came out of the gate certainly didn’t do much to change that. Obviously, much changed over the back half of the season.

But the biggest bounce from all those relationships built and all those games played wasn’t the result of the season—it was how the result came to be. Mostly, it happened because the players knew they could trust the coaches, which would be the baseline for trusting that the plan Sirianni and his staff set out for them would eventually work.

And the best example of that trust came into play right before the season started. The team had broken camp, finished the preseason and set its 53-man roster, and the players were readying to bolt for the three-day Labor Day weekend before buckling down for the long season ahead. Just before they left, Sirianni showed them the video of an interview with Sixers coach Doc Rivers.

In it, Rivers explained how when he coached the 2007-08 Celtics, he went to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and clearly defined their roles within the team for them. It was important, Rivers thought, to be direct with everyone, in telling them what the team would need from them so they could pursue their collective goals knowing the plan. Those Celtics, of course, ended up winning a championship.

Sirianni then addressed his players and told them to expect coaches to reach out to them before they returned to the building for Week 1. That call, Sirianni told them, would detail each guy’s specific role with the team for the season.

"It’s just complete honesty,” McLeod said. "As a player, you respect that, and you know your place. Everybody isn’t going to be the 1,000-yard receiver or going to be a starter, but this is what we’re asking of you and what’s in the best interest of this team in order for us to reach a championship. You have to respect that. I think the trust and honest part is huge, and that was another step in him doing it. … It hurts for some guys. But it’s what’s needed.”

From there, Sirianni proved time and again that, in turn, his staff would return the favor by adjusting to fit the players—Sirianni explained to me earlier this year that he’d been inspired by how his brother, a high school coach, won three state titles at that level with three different offensive schemes, each put in place to best highlight the players he had.

Accordingly, Sirianni borrowed from Oklahoma midseason to adjust a run scheme that would highlight quarterback Jalen Hurts as the season went on. The Eagles wound up rushing for an NFL-high 2,715 yards this year.

And that’s just one more example of how what the Eagles built in the offseason under Sirianni’s plan carried over into the regular season. It may have looked a little different—those games of H-O-R-S-E morphed into Wednesday compete periods in practice, where the football benefit is a little more obvious—but each thing tied into the next, and the coaches’ trusting the players, and vice versa, has continued to pay off.

"Every week, that’s when we saw the ball starting to roll and the tide changing, and that’s where we were like, O.K., this is building an identity,” Mailata said. "Once we found that identity in who we wanted to be, as an offense and as a team, that’s when everyone, not really relaxed, but trusted in the process. It’s what got us here.”

So, the lesson here for other teams?

Get to know the guy you’re hiring. The Eagles did, almost by happenstance—because the timing of the search and hire forced them to.

And since then, that dressed-down candidate has shown everyone else who he is, too.

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