Fresh-cut grass, a fresh-faced coach and a fresh crop of draft talent: The 2021 offseason was packed with big promises and bright ideas – with none bigger or brighter than the laser-sharp focus on fundamentals. From pole-mounted boxing gloves through to giant swingballs and a ban on banana routes, Sirianni said he would be a “relentless pit bull about fundamentals“. But has all that barking produced any real bite?
1) Secure your balls
The boxing glove on a stick was arguably the star of training camp. Coaches lurked in the shadows for every drill, punching and prodding at the football to reinforce the importance of tight tucking. Fumbles were a big problem for the two seasons prior to Sirianni’s arrival, with the Eagles ranked 32nd out of 32 teams in 2019 and 2020, averaging 2.0 and 1.9 fumbles per game respectively.
So far, the team has done a much better job of hanging onto the rock in 2021. In the first nine regular season games, the Eagles are ranked 15th in the NFL with an average of 1.2 fumbles per game. That improvement reflects well on Jalen Hurts and the running back group, who have had a chance to show their skills in the last couple of weeks. But Sirianni’s tough glove approach may have had a hand in it too.
2) Unlike Agholor
Drops are not popular in Philadelphia. That’s why swingballs and JUGS machines were a recurring motif throughout training camp. With big question marks about his quarterback’s arm, Sirianni wants to make sure his receivers hang onto anything that hits their hands. Stats for dropped catches are muddied by factors like bad throws, incompletions and uncalled pass interference. But it’s estimated that the Eagles dropped 30 catches in the 2020 regular season.
In nine games this season, the Eagles have dropped 8 catches – and 20 teams have dropped more. At that pace, the Eagles would drop just over 15 catches in the full 17 games. As the weather turns more sinister and the stakes rise, it’s reasonable to expect the rate of dropped passes to increase. However, it looks like Sirianni’s coaching staff have got a firm grip on this slippery problem.
3) Hey Mister Tallyman, tally me banana routes
When it comes to route running, stats go out of the window. It’s all about the eye test – and DeVonta Smith has added polish and pizzazz to the Eagles’ WR corps. Sirianni famously likes his receivers to “stick your foot in the ground and rip it”. Judging by the constant flow of fan videos highlighting wide-open targets and vast oceans of separation, there’s plenty of reason to believe those words made an impact.
Of course, fans uploaded similar videos in the pre-Sirianni era. It’s also hard to judge route running when receivers frequently have to improvise in scramble drills because Hurts has left the pocket. If the Eagles stick to their recent run-heavy offense, it should open up more opportunities for wide receivers and tight ends to showcase their banana allergies. No prizes for guessing who’ll be the best of the bunch.
4) Zipping up the blue tent?
Football in Philadelphia was defined by injuries in 2019 and 2020. Even a constantly revolving door for medical staff failed to fix the problem. The Eagles needed to cure the injury bug – and took some unusual steps. Training camp practices were cut short. The 22 projected starters played just 325 preseason snaps. And Howie Roseman voiced his commitment to “infuse youth into this team”.
Roseman’s young-blood infusion hasn’t happened. When 53-man rosters were announced, the Eagles had gone from an average age of 26.0 in 2020 to 25.9 in 2021 – ranking 19th in the NFL both years. However, repeat offenders like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Jason Peters have left the building.
On the other (probably injured) hand, the blue tent has played a smaller role in this year’s drama. An injury impact meta-analysis found that the Eagles suffered the 29th heaviest burden from unavailable players in 2020. Heading into Week 6 of 2021, the Banged Up Score from FOX Sports ranked the Eagles in a respectable 14th position. It’s now down to Sirianni to match improved availability with proven ability.
5) Fly, Yellow Flags, Fly
At times this season, it has been difficult to see the Linc’s green turf beneath a thick blanket of yellow flags. The Eagles committed 44 penalties in their first four games – leading the league by a clear distance. But while this indiscipline has often felt like a symptom of Sirianni’s soft-touch style, it’s worth remembering that the Eagles ranked 30th in the NFL in 2020, averaging 6.7 penalties per game.
After nine games, the Eagles have now climbed up to 24th place on the worst-offenders list, averaging seven penalties per game. This is largely due to a huge improvement in the last three match-ups, where the team gave up just three penalties per game. That suggests an ability to identify and correct errors across all areas of the team – perhaps the most important fundamental that Sirianni will be judged on.
Nick Sirianni’s arrival in Philly brought shiny new methods and mantras to the Novacare Complex. Five principles set out his philosophy – and Principle 5 is “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals”. As a result, fans are expecting progress in ball security, catching, route running, availability and discipline. Early signs have been encouraging, but the team is still struggling to score more points than the opposing team. That’s a fundamental problem. Time will tell if Sirianni is the right man to fix it.
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire