The Eagles coach who last year brought us the rock-paper-scissors challenges, played his team hot dog-eating contest videos and used flower-pot analogies, has been working long and hard on some new material for this season.
Nick Sirianni said many of his ideas came during his walks near his Haddonfield, New Jersey, home, or from watching sports documentaries on TV.
“I think you find ways to make it fresh and different, but the core values are still the core values,” Sirianni said in June. “When I’m taking my walks around Haddonfield, that’s what I’m thinking about. How can I tell this story a little bit differently?
“And then it’s just the art of picking a story when it fits.”
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In June, Sirianni said he was about “halfway through” picking his messages or catchphrases for the upcoming season. It’s safe to assume that he has just about all of them as the Eagles get ready to start training camp on Tuesday.
The themes are simple enough.
The Eagles are coming off a surprisingly successful 9-8 record in Sirianni’s first season, but fell woefully short in their 31-15 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs. Since then, expectations have risen significantly as the Eagles added key players throughout the offense to support quarterback Jalen Hurts, and upgraded the defense.
It’s not that Sirianni and the Eagles are driven by expectations. Rather, Sirianni’s messaging is about managing them while staying focused.
For example, Sirianni said last season he told the story about his high school basketball days. As a junior on a senior-laden team, Sirianni wasn’t the main focus on a team that made it to the final eight in the state of New York. But the next season, the two best players graduated. So in the first game, it was left to Sirianni to take the last shot with the game on the line.
“I have it on tape, I showed it to the (team),” Sirianni said. “I fade away, and it looks so pretty. And it stuck between the backboard and the rim. And the camera zoomed in on it. I’m like, ‘OK guys, this was an embarrassing moment.’
“Here was my next game: I had 26 points. So we came back, and I didn’t think about that (miss).”
In essence, he moved on to the next play. How will Sirianni demonstrate that this season?
“I watch documentaries all the time,” he said, mentioning the ESPN series “30-for-30.” “This episode was on the ‘Tuck Rule Game.'”
In that January 2002 playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders, an apparent fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the snow late in the fourth quarter was overturned after a replay review. The replay official ruled that Brady had attempted to tuck the ball away even though his arm’s forward motion had stopped.
The Patriots then tied the game in the final minute and won in overtime. A few weeks later, New England won its first of seven Super Bowls.
“It was all about how the Raiders could not overcome the fact that the referees messed the call up, in their minds,” Sirianni said. “And then you hear the Patriot players saying, ‘Well, if that would have happened to us, (head coach Bill) Belichick would have said, ‘Get that out of your head and play.’
“(The Patriots) still had to drive down the field and make a play. (Adam) Vinatieri still had to make a kick and all these things. So that will be my messaging with that.”
In other words, the Patriots kept playing. The Raiders, furious over the call, lost their focus.
Timing is everything
The players have to buy into these messages, of course.
Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s famous “Win One for the Gipper” speech wouldn’t have worked in 1928 if the players weren’t moved by Rockne’s story of what George Gipp had told Rockne while Gipp was on his deathbed several years earlier:
“… When things are wrong, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got, and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock, but I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”
Yet it seemed like the opposite of motivation when Sirianni showed his team a video of a flower growing roots under the ground last season.
This happened two days after the Eagles were humiliated 33-22 by the Las Vegas Raiders last Oct. 24. The Eagles had just fallen to 2-5. Not only was a playoff spot in serious jeopardy, one could make the argument that Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon seemed overmatched.
They were both in their first seasons in their current role, and it wasn’t going well.
After that loss, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had bristled over Gannon’s read-and-react philosophy on the defensive line. Miles Sanders had just sprained his ankle that would cost him four weeks. And the Eagles had allowed an opposing quarterback to complete 80% or more of his passes four an unprecedented fourth time.
Yet Sirianni said the flower pot was his way of showing them that they were getting better even though the results weren’t being seen.
Sure enough, the Eagles finished the season by winning 7 of their last 10 games to make the playoffs.
“It was just staying in the moment, and I think that’s what I learned from it,” Sirianni said about the 2-5 start. “I think when you look at it that way, you can handle the criticism, you can handle what looks to be an unclimbable mountain.”
Talent over speeches
Obviously, it takes more than motivational speeches.
The Eagles have the expectations because they improved the roster, trading for wide receiver A.J. Brown, signing pass rusher Haason Reddick, linebacker Kyzir White and cornerback James Bradberry. In addition, rookies in defensive tackle Jordan Davis (first round) and linebacker Nakobe Dean (third round) should have a significant role.
But it also matters that Sirianni and his staff are intact for a second year, too.
“This is my first time having the same coach consecutively calling plays, being in the same system,” Hurts said. “So I think that’s been very pivotal.”
Over the second half of last season, Sirianni gave those play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. Sirianni said he plans to keep it that way this season, too. It’s not that Sirianni didn’t feel that he was calling bad plays. Rather, it took away time from interacting with other position groups.
“It’s even more important (as a head coach),’ Sirianni said about connecting with his players. “All eyes are on you. How you react after wins. How you react after losses. How you react with the team. You’re setting the tone there. Your energy at all times is (reflecting on) the team.”
All of this takes preparation. For Sirianni, that preparation comes during the offseason on his walks around Haddonfield.
For now, he’s mostly unnoticed on those walks, as Sirianni described a walk in early June.
“For the first time, like five cars stopped, and they were, like, yelling at me,” he said with a laugh. “A runner was running by, pointed at me, and was like, ‘Coach!’ Then (the next day), nobody recognized me.”
But if the motivational tactics work, that will change, too.
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.