The Philadelphia Eagles are officially a playoff team. They have one more game to play on Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys before turning their attention to postseason football, a remarkable feat for a team that went 4-11-1 last year and welcomed in both a new coaching staff and starting QB.
Nick Sirianni is finally getting the respect he deserves as a Head Coach after a year of criticism, but it can be tricky to evaluate a coaching staff. Every factor has corresponding variables. If you talk wins and losses, you’re accepting that the Eagles have had a pretty soft schedule, but can only play the teams in front of them. If you talk production, that can often come down to player execution.
But what about principles?
At the start of the year, both Nick Sirianni and Jonathan Gannon spoke at length about their coaching principles that they wished to instil. Now, nearly a full season later, it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve seen and evaluate whether the coaches stuck to their word, adapted, and what the end result was.
The big thing that Nick Sirianni hammered home during the offseason was adaptability. There was no such thing as square pegs and round holes. The former Colts offensive coordinator sounded willing to bend his scheme around the strengths of his players and that was a true breath of fresh air after the mess that was the 2020 offense.
“I don’t believe that that’s good coaching when you just say, here’s our offense and let’s go. You learn it, your talents are ‘this’ and your talents are ‘that’, but here’s what we run. That’s just not good offensive football. Good offensive football and good defensive football and good special teams football for that matter is adapting to the players you have and playing to their strengths.“– Nick Sirianni
It took a while, but Sirianni eventually worked out what pushed his team forward and what held it back. The Eagles became a rushing juggernaut after the game against Las Vegas and are now the NFL’s most dangerous offense. No matter how you view it, that kind of production is stunning, but it’s even more so when you look behind the curtain.
Jalen Hurts started the year quite raw as a passer and quickly became the teams’ rushing leader. His greatest strength, aside from his character, is undoubtedly his mobility. It took Sirianni a while to see what he had in Hurts and understand how to squeeze the most juice out of him, but it didn’t take long for the snowball to start rolling.
My experience with franchise quarterbacks is they make everybody around them better, right? They make everyone around them better. But what makes them better, right?
The offensive line has long been known for its fierce demeanour desire to punch opponents in the mouth. With so much freakish athleticism in one spot, their strength had always been getting to the second level and wreaking havoc when opening up running lanes. Add in one of the most impressive run-blocking TE’s in the league and you have yourself a fortress.
It’s not that WR is a weakness for the Eagles, but without DeVonta Smith, it would easily be a nightmare situation. Smith has single-handedly elevated the unit to one that’s competent, and his presence alone forces defenses to account for him, further opening up the run.
Looking even further back
Then, you remember what Sirianni achieved in Indianapolis. He helped build another rushing juggernaut despite losing Marlon Mack for the season early on. It was headlined by a rookie breakout from Jonathan Taylor, who ended up third in rushing. Nyheim Hines put up 862 total yards from scrimmage (482 of which were receiving yards).
The Colts carried four backs on last year’s roster en-route to a season that saw them rank 12th overall and 9th in rushing touchdowns. A torn Achilles for Marlon Mack pushed rookie Jonathan Taylor into the spotlight where he would go on to finish third in the NFL with 1,169 rushing yards. He was supported by the versatile Nyheim Hines who put up 862 total yards from scrimmage (482 of which were receiving yards), and Jordan Wilkins.
To say that Nick Sirianni came in with this gameplan in mind might be inaccurate, but was it a comfortable scheme to fall into? Absolutely. The Eagles were perfectly poised to build on what Sirianni achieved in Indianapolis and that’s exactly what happened.
After ironing out the kinks, Sirianni has ticked every box that we assumed he would and it’s ultimately led to a playoff berth.
Gannon’s principle is a lot easier to identify because he gave the game away very early on. Revealing his clever ‘HITS’ acronym, Gannon highlighted the areas in which he wanted his defense to thrive.
Hustle. Intensity. Takeaways. Smart.
I think they know that from the jump as far as we’re going to run to the ball, we’re going to outhit people, we’re going to take it away, and we’re going to be smart.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road and there were times where even players doubted his scheme, but again, Gannon adapted. At the very least we can say that takeaways have shot through the roof. The Eagles ended last season with a turnover margin of -0.6 which was the second-lowest in the NFL. It’s now +0.1. They’re forcing 0.8 interceptions per game (up 0.3 from 2020) and many of this years’ picks have come from DB’s.
It’s not just fluky, either. Gannon came into this role with a reputation of ‘DB whisperer’ after most recently helping Xavier Rhodes breathe new life into his career. Darius Slay exploded back to a pro bowl level this season and Avonte Maddox has been nothing short of exceptional in the nickel.
As far as smart play goes, I think we can give the defense a pass here for the most part…except for Derek Barnett. That man has drawn more flags than I’ve had cups of tea. And I’m British.
Oh, and the linebackers. They also struggled mightily this year and aside from T.J Edwards and Davion Taylor, the position group has arguably been one of the weakest on the team.
However, the intensity across the board can’t be denied. The Eagles defense, especially over the past month or two, has really been able to hold the fort until the offense gets out of its own way, which isn’t easy to do. The team allowed 0 second half points to WFT this past weekend and came into the matchup allowing the fewest points of any NFC team since week 8.
Gannon’s defense hasn’t always been pretty. It’s easy to interpret a lack of blitzing as a lack of intensity, but when it comes to hitting, the Eagles have forced 13 fumbles in 17 games.
The scheme might not be visually stimulating for the most part, but he has followed through on ensuring his ‘HITS’ philosophy becomes the backbone of the defense.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire