If you were offended by the Eagles’ coaches playing rock-paper-scissors with this year’s draft prospects, you may want to turn away from this story, because that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Philly’s 39-year-old coach, Nick Sirianni, is finding out all he can about players. That goes for the ones he already has and the ones the Eagles might consider bringing into his new workplace.
One game they’ve played over the largely virtual first phase of the offseason program is called Who Am I? Sirianni will have one of his assistants call a player and say, “Tell me everything about you that you want your teammates to know.” After that, the assistant will scour the internet, from Google to Wikipedia, to fill in any remaining blanks and present the guy in a team meeting. In some cases, Sirianni has done it himself.
Another is a retrofitted version of the old show MTV Cribs. In this case, three-time Pro Bowler Lane Johnson was the star of the debut episode, filming directly on his iPhone. And more recently, Sirianni and his staff randomly picked individual players to introduce the team to each of the position-group rooms (second-year man Shaun Bradley was a stud doing it for the linebackers, according to the head coach).
There have been some fun byproducts to come out of all this, for sure. One was pass-game coordinator Kevin Patullo's telling his staffmates that his daughter’s a pretty competitive golfer, which led to his and line coach Jeff Stoutland's playing a round. But there’s a purpose to it, too, and it connects those rock-paper-scissors showdowns to the rest of this.
Just like last year, first-year coaches, in an environment still affected by COVID-19, have to be creative in finding ways to bond their staffs and players. And it has to happen fast—as it did with the draft prospects—because the opportunities to do it have been limited.
“I do think of it this way—it's not our first rodeo on this, because we did all go through it last year,” Sirianni, recalling his experience as offensive coordinator in Indianapolis last year, says. “And I thought Frank Reich did a great job. Really, he did a great job of challenging us as coaches, how we were going to be creative to get an advantage over everybody else in the league, how we were going to win the virtual offseason. Because that was a challenge last year.”
Likewise, Sirianni has spent five weeks challenging everyone in the Eagles’ building.
Some of it, like the stuff above, has been on a personal level. Some of it has been more directly professional. But none of it is a mistake.
After talking to Sirianni about all of it Saturday, it wasn’t hard to figure out that the whole thing—from MTV Cribs to route combinations, and from Who Am I? to pass rush technique—can be connected to who Sirianni is.
We’ll introduce you to him this morning.
Monday’s a fairly significant day, as those in May go in the NFL—it’s Day 1 of Phase II of the offseason program, which brings some semblance of actual football practice (O.K., they’re just walkthroughs) for the first time since the Super Bowl. We’ll cover it, and a lot more, including …
• An update on where the NFL and NFLPA stand with a lot of players returning to work
• Insight into Tim Tebow’s playing tight end—and detailing the previous time he did
• Why Travis Etienne’s giving us a window into what Urban Meyer is bringing to the NFL
• Notes from rookie minicamps
• More on the unfortunate Ja'Wuan James situation
But we’re starting in Philly, where the Eagles have a new coach, and that coach has remained relatively anonymous, at least in comparison to how Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson once arrived on the scene.
The first thing you need to know about Sirianni is where, and what, he comes from. He’s a former Division III receiver at small-school powerhouse Mount Union, and just about everyone—and I mean everyone—in his family is a teacher.
“You want me to hit that one for you?” Sirianni asks with laugh. And then he rolls.
• “My mom was a kindergarten teacher, my dad was a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher.”
• “My brother is a high school history teacher, and his wife is a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher.”
• “My other brother is a college football coach, but he got his education degree. His wife is a physical education/health teacher.”
• “I was an education major. My wife: She was an elementary school teacher in Kansas City when I met her. Now, she's a stay-at-home mom, which is tougher than any of these jobs.”
“That’s my family right there,” he says. “All educators who all married all educators.”
Inside all of it, there’s the wiring for just who the Eagles hired to succeed Pederson. And the relationship-building we detailed above? It’s the starting point for where he hopes to take the team—the foundation for what’s ahead.
“I kind of learned that early on in my life to be 100% honest,” Sirianni says. “My dad was a high school coach. He was the head football coach for nine years at our high school, and he was the head track coach for 41 years. That's why I wanted to get into coaching, the relationships. And here's really why—when I was growing up, these grown men would come with their kids just to say hi to Coach Sirianni, just to say hi to my dad and see him.
“I always thought that was so cool, just the relationship my dad built with these players in the ’70s, early ’80s, where they were coming by to see him. That was just something that was on my mind, why I wanted to coach in the first place.”
But he’s also learned since that there has to be more to it than just that, and that’s where we’ll dive into the other part of Philly’s offseason program, which will ramp up Monday morning.
“I always say this to the players and I always say this to our coaches, the relationship can't just be you being there for them,” he continues. “It's part of it. Are you talking to them about their family? Are you talking to them about their interests? Yes, it's part of it. It's a big part of it. But the relationships that I've had with Dwayne [Bowe], and the relationships that I had with Keenan [Allen] and Tyrell Williams and T.Y. [Hilton], and all those guys was developed through my ability to get them better as players. …
“And when these guys get paid, when they get a big contract, that's so exciting to me. Like when Keenan Allen got a big contract or when Dwayne Bowe got a big contract or Philip Rivers got a big contract, that is what's so exciting for me, to know you're a part of that.”
Logically, that fits into all of this too, because that’s a teacher’s job. Having the right kind of relationships only makes it easier.
Getting to know the players on that personal level is one way Sirianni has challenged coordinators Shane Steichen, Jonathan Gannon and Michael Clay—all, like Sirianni, under 40 years old—over the last four months. Another is drilling down on how each player learns.
And when I asked Sirianni how the players who show up Monday (and the Eagles are expecting a good percentage to come in for the start of Phase II) will see his background as a teacher, that’s where he pointed.
“We're just trying at all times to find creative ways to hit every player’s brain right,” he says. “Some guys are going to learn through walkthroughs. Some guys are going to learn through a video playbook. Some guys are going to learn through a cheat sheet, which is kind of a lesser version of the playbook. Some guys are going to learn through the installs that we've taped and they're going to be able to rewatch. We have different avenues that we try to teach guys with, we do voiceovers do with some things.
“So how do you learn?”
The ideal, he continued, is to have a sort of bespoke program for each guy, so everyone is absorbing the same information as efficiently he can, because it’s being delivered in the best way for every individual. That will happen by, as Sirianni says, creating different avenues to reach the same destination. But it has to start with the coaches getting to understand what’s best for their guys, which, Sirianni says, “is up to the position coaches, it’s up to the coordinators, it’s up to me.”
If they can get there, as Sirianni sees it, creating the tools for everyone to learn should be relatively simple. And if they can’t get there, well, then the coaches need to do better.
“That's ultimately our job,” he says. “If a player doesn't get it right, you gotta look in the mirror first. And that's us as coaches. We're accountable for that. How do we correct that? And it’s not to say the player’s not accountable, but we're in this together, the player and the coach.”
And when the players come in Monday morning, for veterans like Lane Johnson and Brandon Graham all the way down to rookies like DeVonta Smith, the goal will be the same for the next five weeks: Sirianni wants them to leave the offseason program knowing what to do and how to do it, so everyone can hit the ground running when training camp starts.
The former will happen in the classroom. Work on the latter will start on the practice field where, as Sirianni describes it, “I’m really passionate about fundamentals and technique.”
Which, of course, is the teacher in him.
“It’s creating the habits in the things we want to create good habits with,” he says. “But in particular, when you get in person with guys, it's going to be continuing to master the systems. Master your systems. Because when you can master your systems and know what to do, then you can focus all your time on how to do it.”
And once they master both, he continues, “that’s when a player becomes better.”
So that’s some of the micro in how the Eagles have built and are going to build. But Sirianni is also smart enough to recognize there are macro hurdles here, too. The first one, without question, is where the team will be at quarterback. Sirianni has been principled in saying, repeatedly, that there will be competition at every position, and that the quarterbacks aren’t exempt, even if Philly’s offseason has cleared the way for Jalen Hurts to get a real chance.
But where he’ll be more direct is on the importance of the position, and the relationship he’ll have to build with Hurts there—which, admittedly, has to be different than the rest of them.
“It's so important,” he says. “Even Shane and [QBs coach] Brian Johnson, their relationships with the quarterbacks are going to be greatly important because that's like your extension on the field. Sure, we're going to call plays, but we also got to give them the ability to get out of plays when the look’s not right, so you're not running a play into a bad look. It's so important the communication is back and forth and you know what each other's thinking and why you're running to play. That's a huge one.
“Why are we calling this play? Like, what is it? What are we so excited on over the headset? You've got to feel the same excitement like, All right, we're calling this play and hopefully get Cover 4, and oh, my gosh, it’s Cover 4, we all know where the ball is going to go—touchdown. We all got to be thinking the same way. So you spend hours, hours, and hours and hours upon hours on that with the quarterback to make sure you're thinking that way.”
Next after that is the arena Sirianni is walking into, one that’s pretty unforgiving.
Andy Reid got fired after making it to five conference title games and a Super Bowl in 14 seasons. Chip Kelly went 10–6 two years in a row, then got more power, had one bad season and was shown the door. Pederson won the city its first Super Bowl, made the playoffs each of the two years after that, and was fired after the wheels came off the following season.
Sirianni has already gotten a taste of what being the Eagles’ coach in Philly is like. His introductory press conference filled sports radio segments for a week. His anecdote about playing rock-paper-scissors in draft meetings was dissected a million different ways, some with all context lost. His warm welcomes to the city have, as he recalled them, come with regular addendums: It’s kind of rough here, Coach. But he’s not looking at that as a negative.
“I just appreciate how much the fans care here,” he says. “That's pretty awesome. And I mean, you've seen a Chargers game. There were times when there were more Raiders fans there. We used to [simulate] crowd noise before the home games sometimes.”
And, Sirianni continues, he and his wife saw that, having come from Kansas City. “She was an inner-city school teacher in Kansas City. And all the kids on Friday wore Chiefs stuff. Every Friday, everybody in the city. And then you go to San Diego and you might see the visiting team fans, because they were there on vacation to watch the game. So I love and I appreciate the passion that the fans have here.”
He knows. Coaches succeed spectacularly in Philly, just as they fail spectacularly in Philly, and being the former, rather than the latter, for now, means starting with what he knows.
To that end, as we talked, he came back to a text he got from his legendary college coach, Mount Union’s retired 11-time national champion coach Larry Kehres (“I’m getting old, but he’s still coaching me”), that read, Nick, it doesn't matter how much money these guys make, how many touchdowns they scored, everybody needs to know they're loved and appreciated.
“I really pondered on that,” Sirianni says. “I used to think like, man, when Coach Kehres didn't talk to me, I'd be like, Uh, does Coach Kehres not like me. Maybe I just didn’t talk to him that day. But when Coach Kehres went out of his way to say something to me, I'm like, That was awesome. This is huge. And I think that's the power of the head coach, that you are able to let everybody know how much they mean to you and how important everybody's job is in the building.”
Along those lines, Sirianni got a call a few weeks back from a receiver he had at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in his first job after leaving Mount Union, named Roy-Al Edwards. Edwards is from Philly originally—and back in the area with a family of his own now—and the two talked and agreed to find a time to get together for dinner to catch up. “And talking to him,” Sirianni says, “it’s like, now I’m in my dad’s shoes.”
THE FIGHT OVER OFFSEASON PROGRAMS
Monday is the first day of Phase II of NFL offseason programs. What exactly does that mean? Well, practice is allowed at a teaching pace. And next week, with the start of Phase III, meetings can go from virtual to in-person, and practice can happen at full speed, albeit without contact.
That, of course, is by the letter of the CBA. But over the last couple of months, the NFLPA, behind union president (and Browns center) J.C. Tretter, has pushed for a virtual program like the one that took place last year. The league, led by Giants owner John Mara, has pushed back, wanting the offseason program to go back to the way it was before COVID-19. And at first, much of the argument was over how the lingering effects of the pandemic should factor into all of this.
That’s not where things are anymore. It isn’t about COVID-19 at this point. It’s about the players looking for wholesale reform of the offseason program.
“The COVID piece of this is really in two parts,” Tretter said over the phone Sunday night. “One, it gave people a taste of not having an offseason program last year. And two, this year, because of that, we asked is it worth our time to show up? Remember, this is early on in the offseason, before the vaccine was widely distributed, and it’s still really raging, so the question really is, Why would I go back in the middle of a pandemic?
“COVID started this. But then it became, why should we volunteer to go?”
After asking around, Tretter found a consensus: The players felt like they shouldn’t, but had been made to feel like they didn’t really have an option if they wanted to protect their professional future.
“To take a step a little further back, for a long time, this ‘voluntary’ program has never really felt voluntary,” he continues. “But last year, guys saw what it was like not going, and the benefits they’d get from it.”
So with forcing some level of change in mind, the union organized player-issued statements from teams that basically said either most or all guys would skip the voluntary program. That was in April, as Phase I started. And the move really had two results.
1) Players organized on what kind of reform they wanted—and two things, other than COVID-19-related safety measures, emerged as priorities. They felt like the programs needed to be set up as truly voluntary. “No one’s winning a roster spot in May,” Tretter says. And they wanted the intensity of OTA and minicamp practices reined back in.
2) The coaches started negotiating directly with players to try and get them in for some semblance of spring work. “It pushed the onus on to the coaches and GMs to try and create a program that guys think is worth going to,” Tretter says.
And my understanding is that now, No. 2 has led the players to get more of No. 1. Around half of the NFL’s coaches have quietly struck agreements with their players in recent weeks that will lead to guys showing up Monday. Arizona is one such team—I’ve heard Kliff Kingsbury, a former NFL player himself, agreed to scale back his program to take care of guys physically and give them a shot to be in a better place going into training camp in July. The union has also gotten great feedback on how Miami’s Brian Flores has handled it.
Of course, everyone knows how coaches value on-field time, and losing it is probably hard for any of them to swallow. But if the payoff is having a healthier team, I think some would think it would be worth it. And Tretter has his own story to tell in that regard.
Ten minutes into his first OTA practice as a pro, Tretter broke his leg in a fumble-recovery drill, which cost him a year of development and marks his perspective on all of this.
“OTAs have been out of hand for a long time,” Tretter says. “They’re full speed, full contact, nonpadded practices, and guys are getting beat up in them.”
To prove it, the union has data that shows there were eight concussions incurred during 2019’s offseason program. Other injuries are more common, and even minor ones can lead to guys being at a disadvantage going into training camp, when jobs really are lost and won.
And so with the players motivated to change things, and absent a CBA adjustment between the league and union (“There’s not going to be a resolution on the voluntary part of it,” says one source), the coaches and players are making the changes outside the bounds of the contentious NFL-NFLPA talks.
Of course, there has been collateral damage. Ja’Wuan James’s case is one obvious example. He’d been in the Broncos’ building before taking the union’s advice not to take part in the team’s offseason program, then blew out his Achilles and is losing a $10 million guarantee in the process. We’re going to get to that one more in-depth below. But as Tretter sees it, the risk James was taking wasn’t new, and the result is informative.
“Being a pro athlete, you have to work out year-round,” he says. “Only nine of the 29 weeks of the offseason are within the voluntary program. So if we only prioritized staying off the non-football injury list, then we’d all only train nine weeks in the offseason. The league doesn’t want that, fans don’t want that, teams don’t want that. We know that we’re at risk off-site for non-football injury reasons. But it’s the same risk every year. And as for Ja’Wuan’s situation, players are watching that closely.
“You’re tasked with working out year-round. And guys have always felt teams have their back when they’re training, working out for the season. So players are watching this closely to see which teams aren’t going to have players’ backs. And doing this also disincentivizes guys working out. If you’re going to hold this over my head, and I don’t want to get hurt, well, then I’ll play myself into shape, and protect myself and my money.”
Tretter then reemphasizes the point, “You really just want to feel like your team would have your back in that situation. And then on top of that, you read this memo where it sounds like the league is basically pushing teams to throw injured guys under the bus.”
Which brought our conversation right back to what Tretter believes is the owners’ motivation.
“I think it’s coming down to control—you’ll do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it, how we tell you to do it,” Tretter says. They haven’t really heard players tell them no before. And now they have had the vast majority tell them no, and I’m sure it grinds some gears on their side. This is about getting to the status quo for them, even though I think we could all realize there’s a better way.”
So yup, attendance leaguewide Monday morning will be interesting. Tretter, for his part, won’t be at the Browns’ facility, and says most of his teammates will be staying away, too, after Cleveland’s player leadership found that “most guys feel good about where they’re training at and what they’re doing.”
Will that have an impact on their season? It’ll be interesting to see, because up until now, there really was only one way all this was done.
TEBOW'S BRIEF TIGHT END EXPERIENCE
If you ask the coach who had Tim Tebow during, by far, his most successful season as a professional athlete whether he’s athletically capable of playing tight end in an NFL game, that coach doesn’t have to imagine what it would look like. That’s because John Fox saw Tebow do it. And sure, it was for only three snaps in a Week 2 game against Cincinnati in 2011, and it wasn’t as a traditional tight end—the Broncos used Tebow as a “move” tight end and receiver—but there was something there.
And mostly, it was that he didn’t look completely out of place.
Fox’s idea of Tebow playing there wasn’t a new one. In fact, the year before, when he was the coach of the Panthers and Tebow was coming out of Florida, the Carolina staff had discussed what he might look like as a hybrid tight end–fullback—that was how they saw him athletically. So when Eddie Royal got hurt, and with Julius Thomas banged up, on the fly, in a close game and still new in Denver, Fox and his staff gave it a go.
“The one thing I will say, when we threw him in the game, he knew that position,” Fox said over the phone Friday. “He didn’t practice all week there, we hadn’t used him there, it was pretty remarkable. And he didn’t catch a pass in that game, but he has good hands, he’s a good athlete, he understands football. Hell, the guy played pro baseball, so who knows?”
(Here’s my conversation with Fox about Tebow from when he retired from baseball in February.)
The other day, Urban Meyer conceded what’s been widely reported—that the Jaguars are considering bringing his former Heisman-winning quarterback in to play the sort of role Fox used him in on that September 2011 afternoon. He added that he’d like to make a decision in the coming days, and that makes sense, since, as we’ve established, offseason programs move on to the practice field starting now.
The idea that Tebow would be considered for this sort of role has been panned, and that makes sense, too. His last football practice came six summers ago. His last regular-season game came nine years ago. His last start, a blowout playoff loss to New England a week after the famed walk-off win over the Steelers, was nearly a decade ago. He’s 33 now, and that would make him the oldest player on the Jaguars by nearly three years over receiver Marvin Jones. Generally, that’s not an age at which teams take on projects.
Now, the obvious: Tebow has always been a little different and, clearly, for Meyer, he’s unique.
And I think that, really, is where we get to the upshot of this for Meyer. Every new coach wants to bring players with him who’ll help sell his message in the locker room, guys who can bring testimony to the theory being sold. From that standpoint, Fox understands why the idea of Tebow makes sense for Meyer.
“Most definitely,” Fox says. “You definitely want somebody carrying your flag, carrying your torch, carrying the message. Any time I was a new coach somewhere, I wanted to do that. I brought Jessie Armstead from the Giants to Carolina. Every time I went somewhere, I brought someone. And it’s because they’re the ones down in the locker room, and every successful team I’ve been around, leadership’s been important, and the reality is what makes or breaks you is the leadership in that locker room, more than anywhere else.”
Which brings us to the next set of questions: Will the players listen to Tebow if he struggles? And if he’s a mess at his new position, will that cost the staff some credibility?
“Urban really likes him,” Fox continues. “He believes in his leadership. And I do too. He can be a really positive force in the locker room, he can help you establish a culture. But realistically, I haven’t seen him play in 10 years. To line up and play tight end after all that time off? To me, it’s a longshot.”
The Jaguars, for their part, have seen him more recently. At this point, and in part because he lives locally, Jacksonville has been able to work him out a number of times—and those who were there weren’t just projecting what he could do as a tight end, but also looking for potential special teams value (he played some on teams for the Jets in 2012), which is part of the deal. To make the team, he’ll probably have to bring something in that phase of the game, too.
As Fox sees it, willingness to do those things probably won’t be a problem, and there was good evidence in that Bengals game. Some quarterbacks would’ve balked if they were tapped on the shoulder to play another position in an emergency spot. Tebow’s reaction was the opposite. “He wanted to,” Fox says. “He’s a competitor, man. He just wanted to win.”
The tougher part is whether he can actually pull it off, at his age. Because using Tebow as an emergency tight end is one thing. Giving him a roster spot, and a place on the depth chart at the position, is something else entirely.
“He’s not gonna be a ‘Y’ tight end,” says Fox, referencing playing the traditional in-line tight end position, which requires a player to operate almost as an extra tackle on some snaps. “But as a slot receiver–move tight end, in two-tight end sets, I think he was capable of that, because of how big he is. He’s built like a fullback, he’s smart, he’s tough, strong, durable, competitive. Anyone like that has a chance. Now, at 33? In football, that’s older.”
One thing Fox says he would guarantee, amid all the unknown, is that “no one will outwork him, no one will outlift him and he’d earn respect that way early on.” He also compared him to Larry Csonka as a runner, which, of course, opens up the chance of using him in different ways across the offense.
But as for the job he’s trying to get hired for? Fox reiterated that he thinks it’s a “long shot,” which is not an insult. Making it in the NFL isn’t easy for anyone. Making it back after a decade away? Even tougher. And definitely a long shot.
While we’re on the Jaguars, I think it’s worth paying attention to what Meyer is doing with Travis Etienne. In case you missed it, the new Jacksonville coach deployed the Clemson dynamo as a receiver at rookie minicamp over the weekend, and I think it’s more than an experiment. In fact, I think it’s one of the first clues to what Meyer is planning to bring with him from the college game. And I referenced it Saturday on Twitter, when I grouped Etienne together with former Florida star Percy Harvin, and ex-Ohio State stud Curtis Samuel. A lot of people were confused by the comps. So let me lay it out for you …
• Harvin was a high school quarterback who converted, when arrived on campus, into a college hybrid. And if you don’t really recall his role as a Gator, because he was drafted into the NFL as a receiver, he had more carries (194) than catches (133) at UF.
• Samuel was a high school running back who converted as a collegian into the same sort of hybrid, and his distribution of carries (172) to catches (107) in Columbus, similarly, belies his NFL label as a receiver (you saw his crossover ability last year playing for Panthers OC Joe Brady).