PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles coach Nick Sirianni opened the week by showing his team a video of Hall of Famer Peyton Manning drilling kids in the back of the head with footballs.
Sirianni, the 40-year-old first-year head coach, holds a 30-minute team meeting every Wednesday as on-field preparations for the upcoming opponent begin in earnest. Attention to detail was the focus this time around as the Eagles get ready to face the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Sirianni had a picture of Manning surrounded by teammates on the big screen. Players expected Sirianni to dive right into the lesson, but to keep it light he fired up the "Saturday Night Live" digital short where Manning starred as an overly intense children's mentor.
Once his players were loose, Sirianni flipped to a video of Manning during a workout at Duke University, showing how meticulous he was, even out of season.
"Pay attention to the detail and also the practice intensity," he said of his message to the team, "and just a reminder of what worked for us last week" against the Detroit Lions.
Sirianni had a different message in the Wednesday meeting before the Lions game that created national headlines.
He told the media he showed his players a picture of a flower to illustrate how growth often happens below the surface, and results will come if you're "watering and fertilizing every day." The Eagles had just been smacked around by the Las Vegas Raiders to drop to 2-5, and pundits were looking for any piece of evidence Sirianni was incompetent. The flower analogy was like chum in the water.
But Philadelphia trounced the Lions 44-6 and revered veteran center Jason Kelce broke the team down in the locker room postgame by screaming, "Keep them roots going, baby! One, two, three... ROOTS!"
That's about how the first half of Sirianni's first season has gone. With an exuberance and offbeat approach that is often likened to the fictional character Ted Lasso. He's had his share of stumbles in the public forum and has been both chided and embraced, depending on the outcome of a given game. He's had difficulty finding his footing as an offensive playcaller and has twice had his star defensive player, Fletcher Cox, call out the approach on the other side of the ball.
He's also had some breakthrough moments, highlighted by a pair of dominant wins over the Lions and Atlanta Falcons, and has been busy with that proverbial watering can behind the scenes, with the hope that, in time, his young team and coaching staff will shoot through the surface.
Figuring it out with QB Jalen Hurts
If you did a study, there's a strong chance the four words uttered the most in Philadelphia over the past two months have been, "Run the ball, Nick!"
The running backs went through a two-week stretch where they received 16 carries total. Entering Week 6, Hurts was accounting for almost 90% of the offense in terms of yardage, the highest rate by any player in the NFL. That's a lot to put on a player with a dozen starts under his belt, and the results were predictable. The offense was erratic, the Eagles had difficulty sustaining drives, and with the defense beginning to leak oil, Philadelphia dropped five of six.
Sirianni made adjustments starting against Las Vegas by putting Hurts under center and calling more traditional runs instead of being ultra-reliant on the run-pass option game, where a designed run can turn into a pass or quarterback keeper depending on how the defense reacts. The Eagles ran the ball 46 times for 236 yards and four touchdowns against Detroit, utilizing the strength of the offense -- the big men up front -- to control the line of scrimmage and set up play-action. The most used word this week in Philadelphia had to have been, "Finally!"
There's been a pretty sharp learning curve on offense, and that's for Sirianni as well. Not only is he a first-time playcaller, but the system he implemented in Philadelphia is different than the ones he was around as quarterbacks coach of the Chargers and offensive coordinator for the Colts when he worked with Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck, among others. Running back Miles Sanders likened it to the RPO-heavy scheme he was in at Penn State.
“I would say he has worked extremely hard to make this as comfortable for Jalen Hurts as possible. He’s tried to play to what Jalen Hurts is. Hurts his whole life has been a shotgun quarterback. His whole life he’s been a quarterback that’s run the ball," said NFL Films senior producer/ESPN analyst Greg Cosell. "For those who think it’s a bad marriage are 100% wrong .... Then you have to decide if Jalen Hurts is good enough to be your quarterback.
“[Sirianni] wants a good mix of a quarterback who can play under center with a run game, and a quarterback that can be in the gun. I think he wants probably more route combinations and more route concepts."
Whether Sirianni and Hurts will work as a long-term fit is very much up for debate. The tandem has had some significant growing pains early on, with signs of late they're circling a more effective formula for offensive success.
A search for common ground
The Eagles had just finished their final walk-through of the week a couple Saturdays back when Jordan Mailata, the the 6-foot-8, 365-pound former Australian rugby player turned left tackle, decided to grab some food from the NovaCare Complex cafeteria before heading home.
He ran into Sirianni, and what started as a random encounter turned into a half-hour conversation.
"We were just eating and he was asking me questions about my family, my girlfriend, about the way I grew up, just trading stories and finding out if we had something in common and we did," Mailata said. "The way we were raised. Even though I was raised on the other side of the world, our dads were pretty much the same. We loved and our siblings loved sports as well. It was just kind of nice to find similarities and connect.”
Sirianni rattles off his core principles enough -- compete, accountability, football IQ, fundamentals and connect -- that it can be eyeroll-inducing. But he's serious about them. We've heard plenty about his competitive streak, from playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with prospects to challenging a shirtless Gardner Minshew to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Progress with the middle three principles is evidenced by the steady decline in Eagles penalties. They set team and league records for penalties over the first few weeks, made it a heavy point of emphasis, and have since largely corrected the issue.
Where the #Eagles ranked in penalties each week (not overall, but penalties called that week)— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) November 1, 2021
Wk 1: 1st
Wk 2: 13th
Wk 3: 1st
Wk 4: 2nd
Wk 5: 16th
Wk 6: 22nd
Wk 7: 21st
Wk 8: 31st
Major problem from early on in the season is trending in the right direction
"Connect" is the biggie for Sirianni. Words used to describe him in the building include "relatable" and "approachable." His predecessor, Doug Pederson, had a similar vibe. His success was less about being an X's and O's maven and more about being an emotionally intelligent person who won the respect and loyalty of his players and coaches. If Sirianni is going to make it in Philadelphia, it will be for similar reasons.
His defensive coordinator, Jonathan Gannon, has faced plenty of heat for running a unit that has not only been inconsistent but often comes off as passive, which is the equivalent of a mortal sin in an aggressively minded city like Philadelphia.
Asked for a memorable story about Sirianni from the first half of the season, Gannon said Sirianni reached out to him with words of encouragement on a Friday night back in Week 3. Gannon took it as Sirianni taking his coaching hat off for a moment to show his support as a friend.
"It's just like the players. You do your job so your buddy can have success doing his. For us, let's do our job so Nick can have success being the head coach," Gannon said. "That's servant leadership. That's what we're trying to do."
"[Sirianni] brings great intensity and he has a good purpose about what he’s trying to do," Hurts said. "He goes out there and he wants to affect everyone around him, he wants to build good relationships with everybody, and that goes a long way."
A closing argument
It's easy to see what this season is: a transition period. The title team from 2017 has been all but disassembled. The roster is turning over. The only Super Bowl-winning coach in team history was fired in January, the one-time franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, was traded to the Colts a short time later, and the dysfunction that had crept into the building was laid bare for everyone to see.
That's the situation Sirianni stepped into. Faith in the Eagles is at a low point, and every news conference mishap or questionable in-game decision is presented as evidence that the organization has lost its way. A 3-5 start has done little to provide evidence to the contrary.
The roughest stretch of the season, though, is behind them. The Eagles have the second-easiest closing schedule in the NFL, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, behind only the Miami Dolphins. They still have a pair of division games against both the New York Giants (2-6) and Washington (2-6) remaining and also play the New York Jets (2-5).
They are a game back in the wild-card race and have a 20% chance of making the playoffs, per FPI.
Given the inexperience of the coaching staff, quarterback and skill position players -- it's the youngest staff in the league, and not one primary receiver is over 23 years old -- making a hard charge at the playoffs feels like a stretch. But with a soft closing schedule and positive signs starting to emit from both sides of the ball, Sirianni has a chance to stick the landing, however unconventional the route.