Thursday, March 30 2023

PHILADELPHIA — Nick Sirianni’s introduction to Philadelphia was funny, in a not-so-funny sort of way. He was a virtual unknown, replacing a Philly legend, and there were already worries that the Eagles had reached too far to find their new head coach.

Then his opening press conference was … well, it was something. It played right into all of the outside fears. He looked and sounded nervous on the video call with reporters. He appeared overmatched and unprepared. He gave long, rambling answers that weren’t actually answers. He stuttered and struggled and mispronounced names.

“Yeah,” Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert recalled. “Obviously you see that press conference and you don’t really know what to think.”

Added defensive end Brandon Graham, “He said all the wrong things.”


But then another funny thing happened to Sirianni, that played out a few months later in one of his first meetings with the team. He wasn’t embarrassed by his performance as much as he was furious. He was even angrier at the way he was portrayed in the media. He knew his players had seen it, heard it, and probably replayed it in a loop on their phones.

So he didn’t hide it. He replayed the press conference on the big screen during a team meeting. He laughed. He ripped his own performance. He attacked his opening fumble head-on.

“Yep. He showed it to us,” Goedert said. “He had some words about different reporters that made fun of him. He said ‘Give me their numbers. I need to talk to them.'”

“He was pissed about it,” Graham added. “I loved that because a lot of coaches wouldn’t admit when the media got under their skin. It was just cool, just down to Earth.”

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Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni won the “NFL on FOX” Coach of the Year award presented by Mark Sanchez and Chris Myers.

That wasn’t necessarily the moment Sirianni won over a skeptical Eagles locker room for good, but it certainly was the start of his quest to gain his players’ trust. Those that were there appreciated how he could laugh at himself and own up to his mistakes in front of everyone. And they liked his anger and determination to fight back and not let it ever happen again.

They also loved that he was convinced his message was right, even if his delivery was awkward — and his insistence that someday even his strongest critics would see it, too, even if that would take a little while.

Two years later, the 41-year-old Sirianni has clearly and completely won over the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia now as he leads them into Super Bowl LVII next Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX). His players can’t say enough great things about him, and there was outrage across the city when he wasn’t named one of the three finalists for NFL Coach of the Year.

But at the beginning, his critics were everywhere when the Eagles plucked him out of obscurity to replace Doug Pederson, the coach who had just won a Super Bowl three years earlier, who had taken the Eagles to the playoffs in three straight seasons, and who owner Jeffrey Lurie unexpectedly fired after a 4-11-1 season. Sirianni was hardly a big name, even in NFL circles. He was the offensive coordinator in Indianapolis he was running Frank Reich’s offense and where Reich called the plays.

His awkward debut didn’t help his image as a reach. Neither did the Eagles’ 2-5 start to his first season. And then came his infamous “flower” pep talk, when he stood in front of a room of big, tough, professional football players, put a picture of a flower on the screen behind him and told them “The roots are continuing to grow out and the only way they continue to grow is if we water, we all fertilize.”

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From the outside, SIrianni looked like more of a punch line than leader.

But inside, things were different. The Eagles were already starting to respect Sirianni as a coach.

“As soon as he stepped up in front of the team meeting and started talking football we knew he was the right guy,” Goedert said. “He’s a super smart football guy.”

He also can be a bit of a jerk.

Or at least, that’s the way his opponents sometimes see him. Sirianni knows it and he seems to like it. That’s the way he was as a receiver in high school up in the Southern Tier of New York State, and it’s how he was when he was winning three Division III national championships as a receiver at the University of Mount Union in Ohio. He’s never just been confident. He’s cocky, and he shows it.

And he is completely at peace with the idea that his personality can rub people the wrong way.

“My brother married a girl from our rival high school,” Sirianni said. “Kind of a rival. A little smaller school They have all sorts of family members (that went) there, and my brother will go to an event at Randolph (High School) and he’ll be like, ‘You know the people there still don’t like you from all the things that you did when you were playing against them.'”

Of course Sirianni knew that. Of course he didn’t care. And of course he still doesn’t. That’s clear even now with the way he sometimes screams at opponents from the sidelines or even yells at fans in the stands. He is not cut from the stoic, emotionless, Bill Belichick mold that has infected so many of today’s NFL coaches. He is a fist-pumping, chest-bumping, screamer who wants everyone — particularly his players — to know exactly how he feels.

“I mean, that’s what players do,” said cornerback Darius Slay. “He’s a younger coach. That’s what they do a lot. When they see their guys make plays, they get excited for them. Some coaches are built different.”

And if opposing players and coaches don’t like it? OK. If he gets ripped for it on sports-talk radio — and yes, he listens and hears it all and has no problem letting the hosts know it — that’s fine, too.

“All I care about is our team,” he said. “And I’m not really concerned about anything else that anybody thinks.”

That attitude — that us vs. them feeling, the idea that he’s right and everyone else is wrong — went over big in the Eagles’ locker room. Once they started winning, it became a hit in the city of Philadelphia too.

Of course, they had to start winning first. And midway through his first season they were stuck in that 2-5 hole, waiting for the flower he had planted to grow into something substantial. Things weren’t working. Quarterback Jalen Hurts was struggling in his first season as a starter. The Eagles’ defense had no pass rush. There was some speculation in the Philadelphia media that Sirianni would be — or at least should be — one and done.

‘We’re so appreciative of these fans’

Nick Sirianni speaks with Tom Rinaldi after the Eagles beat the 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl.

That seemed like a perfect time for a young, first-time head coach to change his approach, to try something different just so something would work. And he did a little. Somewhere in the middle of last season he quietly gave up the offensive play calling to his offensive coordinator, Shane Steichen.

But otherwise there weren’t any huge changes, because that wouldn’t have been Sirianni’s style.

“He stuck to what he believed in,” Goedert said. “He told us to double down on the process. That’s what we did. We all believed in what he was saying. We doubled own and it started to work and it’s just been growing ever since.”

In the next game, the first game after the flower speech, Sirianni’s Eagles went to Detroit and hammered the Lions 44-6. The next week they lost to a pretty good Los Angeles Chargers team on a last-second field goal. In all, they went on a 7-2 run and clinched a playoff berth in time to rest their starters in the regular-season finale.

“He got made fun of for talking about flowers and stuff,” Goedert said. “So he let everybody know he knows what he’s talking about.”

Yes he did. But the Eagles already knew that. They understood what Sirianni was teaching them and could see what he was building even before the wins started to come.

“By the end of last year, my evaluation of Nick was: Outstanding leader, wants to have an outstanding staff, and put it together with a great culture,” Lurie said. “(He’s) just somebody who connects. If he talks about it, he puts it into action.”

“His atmosphere and culture that he’s built within this building is a really big reason why the coaches have flourished and why the players have flourished,” center Jason Kelce said. “That’s what the head coach’s main role is — to facilitate a team and organization that is focused on improving, on working, that comes in the building with energy, that is motivated to get better. I think Nick does a phenomenal job of that.”

That all paid off in a big way this season, with a 14-3 record in just his second year, two blowout playoff wins and now a trip to the Super Bowl. The success isn’t all about Sirianni. It helped that Hurts blossomed into an MVP candidate in his second full season as a starter. And Howie Roseman, the Eagles general manager, certainly dealt SIrianni a strong hand with the acquisitions of players like receiver A.J. Brown (a franchise record 1,496 receiving yards), edge rusher Haason Reddick (16 sacks), cornerback James Bradberry (second team all-pro) and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (an NFL-best six interceptions despite missing five games).

Still, the Eagles bristle that the idea that Sirianni has gotten a “free ride” on an all-star team — as Giants safety Julian Love said on Thursday. To them, the head coach’s contributions have been so much more than that.

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“Nick is outstanding,” Lurie said. “He’s smart, connects with everybody, cares, is passionate.”

“He’s not just ‘Oh, it’s my way or the highway,'” Slay said. “He’s asking us questions, getting our suggestions and our thoughts. He cares a lot about the players.”

“He’s a players’ coach,” added Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. “He just understands us and kind of listens to us. He’s all about taking care of the players.”

Graham recalled that when Sirianni was hired he asked some of his friends on the Colts for a scouting report, and they all had positive things to say.

“They said ‘You got you a good one. Hopefully being a head coach don’t change him,'” Graham said. “From what I’ve seen it didn’t.”

Actually, Sirianni says it did. After last season was over, he looked back at his over-the-top reactions to everything, both on the sidelines during games and practices and in private meetings. He recalled how he used to get nervous on flights when turbulence hit, so he would look to the flight attendants for guidance. If they remained calm, he remained calm. If they looked nervous, he’d get rattled too.

That’s what he wanted to be for his players — the calm presence in the storm.

“Am I perfect when the turbulence is really rocky? Am I sitting perfectly still like this at all times? No,” he said. “But I know I’m better than I was when I was looking around like that. So I’m growing. Just like we want our players to grow in all areas, I’m growing, too.”

Just not too much or too fast.

“No man suddenly becomes different,” Sirianni said. “That doesn’t mean you gradually can’t become different.”

That’s good, because the Eagles clearly don’t want “different.” Philadelphia doesn’t want “different” either. They just dominated the regular season, they are on the verge of their second championship in six seasons, and have visions of another wild parade. So they’ll gladly take his flowery pep talks, rambling answers and how he can act like an energetic teenager on the sidelines.

And the only thing anyone is laughing at now is the fact that it was just two years ago when Sirianni was almost laughed right out of town.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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