From Coach Flower Pot to Coach of the Year? How Nick Sirianni made Eagles a playoff team

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Remember the sense of dread Eagles fans had when Nick Sirianni was introduced as the head coach last Jan. 29?

Sirianni was noticeably nervous, stumbling over his words. He seemed overmatched. Then in April, he became a laughingstock when he said he played the game of "rock, paper, scissors" over Zoom calls with prospective draft picks.

It happened again after a 2-5 start in late October, when Sirianni showed his team a picture of a flower growing roots.

Sirianni was panned on social media, laughed at by fans and media. But his point was that the Eagles were getting better, even if that wasn't evident yet.

The players still joke about it, such as when left tackle Jordan Mailata was asked to describe what it's like playing next to rookie Landon Dickerson at left guard.

"I'll keep the plant analogies," Mailata said. "It's blossomed, mate."

So here the Eagles are now, at 9-7, having clinched a playoff spot heading into their regular-season finale Saturday night against the Cowboys. To some, Sirianni has gone from Coach Flower Pot to a Coach of the Year candidate.

While one can argue that New England's Bill Belichick has done a better job, it's clear that Sirianni has been the best of the seven head coaches hired last offseason. That is remarkable in itself considering that no other teams interviewed Sirianni besides the Eagles.

Sirianni said he doesn't care.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni looks up at the scoreboard during a Dec. 5 game against the New York Jets.
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni looks up at the scoreboard during a Dec. 5 game against the New York Jets.

"My job is to block out the outside noise," Sirianni said, "whether it's telling me that I'm really good ... or whether it's telling me that I stink – and that my catchphrases about growing roots stink."

The flower-pot message resonated with the players after that 33-22 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 24. Even if it didn't seem that way.

Back then, there were questions about whether Sirianni would even finish this season.

"You can’t flinch, and I don’t think he flinched, not one bit," quarterback Jalen Hurts said. "Like myself, he’s a gritty competitor and he wants to win. He wants to put his best foot forward in everything he does.

"We never flinched as a football team, regardless of any expectation of anybody else, or any opinion out there. We controlled the things we could. We approached every day with the right approach, and we continued to attack."

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Head of 2021 coaching class

That isn't just hyperbole.

Just look at the other six coaches who were hired last winter.

Urban Meyer was perhaps the hottest NFL coaching candidate after a storied career at Ohio State and Florida. The Jacksonville Jaguars, armed with the No. 1 overall pick and boatloads of salary cap space, hired him.

Meyer went 2-11 and was fired after a brief, turmoil-filled reign.

Robert Saleh with the Jets, David Culley with the Texans, and Dan Campbell with the Lions have not elevated their teams above the NFL's worst.

The Falcons' Arthur Smith and Chargers' Brandon Staley both inherited franchise quarterbacks.

Sirianni had neither a franchise quarterback nor salary-cap space for free agency. And Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie admitted he was looking more to the future than to the 2021 season.

Sirianni inherited Hurts, who was the Eagles' second-round pick in 2020. Hurts was hardly considered the quarterback of the future after finishing out a 4-11-1 season because previous franchise quarterback Carson Wentz was benched, then traded.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts started 15 of 16 games for the Philadelphia Eagles this season.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts started 15 of 16 games for the Philadelphia Eagles this season.

Yet Sirianni succeeded, both on the field in how he designed a prolific running attack to fit Hurts' strengths, and off the field in how he reached his players.

Sure, Sirianni came up with some corny catchwords, like "connecting" as one of his five "core values."

But then he followed through rather than paying lip service.

Sirianni connected with veterans like Cox, center Jason Kelce and cornerback Darius Slay by giving them rest during the course of a long season.

He even connected with tight end Zach Ertz, who was so disgruntled after last season that he spent months clamoring for a trade.

Yet Ertz was so impressed with Sirianni that he said this at the end of training camp: "This is the most fun I’ve had coming to work in a long time."

Ertz was traded in October.

And that also includes Lane Johnson, who left the team for three games in October to treat a mental health illness.

“Any situation that our players have to go through, we’re going to be there for them and we’re going to feel for them in tough times," Sirianni said in October, while Johnson was away.

Reaching out to Reagor

Sirianni also connected with players who struggled on the field, such as second-year wide receiver Jalen Reagor. On one day during training camp, Sirianni could be seen and heard yelling at Reagor after he missed an assignment.

Reagor said he understood that tough love is necessary.

"I've had that my whole career," Reagor said. "My dad (defensive lineman Montae Reagor) played in the league. I had (former NFL quarterback) John Kitna as a coach in high school. So (Sirianni) getting on me, that's like anything ... That's what happens in sports to the greatest of great players. It happens to everybody."

But Reagor said Sirianni also gives him "little words of affirmation" that meant a lot, too.

That was evident after the Nov. 28 game against the Giants, when Reagor dropped two passes at or near the end zone in the final minute of a 13-7 loss.

"Even when the fans were booing me, he was very upset about it when I dropped the pass against New York," Reagor said. "He was the first person to walk up to me. He walked me all the way through the tunnel and everything. So he has our back."

Sirianni also listens to his veterans.

That began in the summer with the shorter practice times, and it extends to the rest days veterans like Cox and Kelce get on the first practice day of a game week.

Offense, defense taking off

Yes, all of this took time.

But Sirianni adapted and tweaked things.

That was apparent after the loss to the Raiders when the Eagles emphasized the running game behind Hurts. Over the next eight games, they averaged 204 yards per game on the ground before netting 118 last Sunday against Washington.

During those nine games, the Eagles have averaged 28.8 points per game. On defense, the Eagles have allowed an average of 16.6 points per game, ranking fourth in the NFL during that time.

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Sure, one could argue that Sirianni should have adapted a run-based offense sooner. But Sirianni has said that he had to make Hurts more of a threat as a pocket passer so teams had to respect that.

When that happened, the running game would become more dangerous.

Eventually, that happened. The difference was Sirianni convinced his team that it would happen, even when they were 2-5 and seemingly going nowhere."

"It's such a special feeling when you bought into the system, and the process that your head coach and the coaches are implementing," Mailata said. "We understood the process, but trusting in the process was that next step that we had to take.

"That's when the ball started rolling ... We understood the weapons and the assets we had on our team. So we were more than confident moving forward that we had to just make it click."

All of this led to here, last Sunday night, when the Eagles officially clinched a playoff spot. It came 7 1/2 hours hours after the Eagles finished off their 20-16 win over Washington.

At that moment, Sirianni could finally relax. But there wasn't much time to celebrate.

"Coaching, just emotionally, takes a lot out of you, and so you’re exhausted when you get home," he said. "So, by the time it was actually clinched ... I was ready to go to bed.

"Obviously, we're really excited to be in the tournament. We're all excited to be in this situation. But the goal is obviously to run it out, and go as far as we can."

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: How coach Nick Sirianni made Philadelphia Eagles an NFL playoff team