How Eagles coach Nick Sirianni survived an ugly start to become Philly’s guy

By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer

There is an actual statue of Doug Pederson outside of Lincoln Financial Field, a tribute to the former coach and the legendary “Philly Special” play that brought the city its lone Super Bowl title.

Nick Sirianni doesn’t have to pass it on his way to work every morning. But its shadow surely follows the current Eagles coach wherever he goes.

He’ll get a big reminder of that on Sunday when Pederson returns to his old home as the new coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars just five years after that magical championship run and two years after his messy exit. Pederson went 42-37-1 during his five-year tenure in Philadelphia. He won the NFC East twice and went to the playoffs three times. He also left behind several assistant coaches and more than 20 players on the current roster.

There’s hardly been enough time for Sirianni to make the Eagles his own.

And yet, he undoubtedly has.

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“Sometimes you have to go through changes to have success,” Pederson said this week on a video call with the Philadelphia-area media. “You have to go through a change to change things. Just a fresh start for everything.”

As much as Pederson may be beloved in Philadelphia — and his former players seem to think he’ll get a warm reception from the tough Philly fans on Sunday afternoon — the 41-year-old Sirianni has done everything possible to make the Eagles his team in the 20 months he has been on the job. It wasn’t easy. It took time for everyone to get used to his personality quirks and odd habits. And he was nearly run out of town by the fans last season after a 2-5 start.

But since then, he has done the one thing that every coach needs to do to survive: He has won. The Eagles went 7-3 over their final 10 games last season to make the playoffs, and they’re 3-0 this year and look like they might be the best team in the entire league.

The reason for that, Sirianni says, is simple: Even though the Eagles went 4-11-1 in Pederson’s final season, the new coach was handed a pretty good team.

“I wasn’t like a first-year head coach last year in the sense of what usually happens with a first-year head coach, where they’re not great on the O-line, D-line,” Sirianni said on Wednesday. “Because that’s where you win football games.

“I had quite the opposite scenario as a first-year head coach.”

That’s true, but it’s also underselling the impact Sirianni has had on what was portrayed as a dysfunctional organization in the aftermath of Pederson’s departure. Sirianni was not welcomed warmly when Eagles GM Howie Roseman plucked him out of relative obscurity, where he was running Frank Reich’s offense with the Indianapolis Colts. And Sirianni added fuel to the skeptical fire with a nervous, stumbling, rambling performance in his introductory press conference that turned him into a punchline on social media.

Then came his first Scouting Combine as an NFL head coach one month later, when he was lampooned again for challenging prospects over Zoom calls to games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. And that only turned into a bigger joke when the Eagles got off to that ugly start.

That’s right about when the Sirianni era looked doomed. He was laughed at when he told the story of how he put up a picture of a flower in a team meeting after that 2-5 start and told his players “the roots are continuing to grow out, and the only way they continue to grow is if we water, we all fertilize, we all do our part. … so when it’s time to pop, it’ll pop.”

It didn’t matter that he had a point. The Eagles were losers at the time, and the fans and media wanted a football coach not a florist.

But behind the scenes, his players got the message. Sirianni often talked about making a “connection” with his players, so that they always understood what he was doing and why. He was constantly talking to them, challenging them, discussing things with them, laying the groundwork for that mutual understanding.

Maybe it was coincidence that days after that flower speech, they went out and beat a bad Detroit Lions team 44-6. But there was no coincidence in what happened in the locker room afterward, where center Jason Kelce showed everyone they understood and had their coach’s back. When he gathered his teammates, he raised his hand in the air and yelled, “Keep them roots growing, baby! Roots on three – 1, 2, 3 … Roots!”

Yes, it got laughs. And yes, the reaction probably would’ve been different had they lost. But the larger point was Sirianni had made the “connection” he was striving to make from Day 1.

And from afar, Pederson says he can see how much it has worked.

“He’s a smart guy, he understands ball, he understands his team,” Pederson said. “And that’s the thing I think is a quality to be successful in this league as a head coach, is to understand your players. He does that. He connects with them on a personal level, which is really good.”

It’s more than just flowery speeches, too. That connection can be seen in the way SIrianni deals with players publicly — like how he wore a T-shirt with a picture of quarterback Jalen Hurts’ face on it at the start of training camp, or the ones he has worn with pictures of kicker Jake Elliott, running back Miles Sanders, Kelce and so many others.

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It’s an idea he said he stole from his brother, Mike, who is the head coach at Division III Washington & Jefferson College.

“One thing he always liked to do was wear a shirt from the high school that [his players] went to,” Nick Sirianni said. “[It’s] just an easy way to connect with the player. So what better way to connect with them than wear a shirt with his face in the middle of it?”

If there is a better way, Sirianni will probably find it. He is constantly on the lookout for ways to connect with and motivate his players. He likes to challenge their competitive spirit, which is one reason why he installed a regulation basketball hoop on the wall of the auditorium where the Eagles hold their team meetings.

And he’s constantly scouring the internet for videos that might get his message across. For example, the night before the Eagles’ game against Washington two weeks ago, he showed his team a video of Kobe Bryant running through Spain’s Pau Gasol on the first play of a game in the 2008 Olympics. Bryant and Gasol were Lakers teammates at the time.

It was a metaphor for how he wanted his players to treat Commanders quarterback — and former Eagles quarterback — Carson Wentz.

“It was a perfect video to add to the story I was telling there,” Sirianni said. “And it did fit pretty well, like ‘Pau Gasol is my brother. Pau Gasol is my teammate. Pau Gasol, I love him. But I’m running through that guy’s chest.'”

The Eagles’ defense sacked Wentz nine times and hit him 17 times in a 24-8 Philly win.

Of course, quirks, gimmicks and motivational tactics are only good stories when teams are winning — and that’s really the key to Sirianni’s success. It’s also the key to how long the sudden love affair between him and Philly’s famously fickle fans will last.

For now, maybe Eagles fans will cheer for Pederson on Sunday, but they know Sirianni is their guy. They chuckle at his quirks and goofy tactics and playfully gripe about them in calls to talk radio. And they revel in the stories about his fiery personality, like when he screamed at a Giants fan he saw playing tennis in a Philadelphia suburb back in June. It was a story he said was embellished when the fan told it in a call to WFAN radio in New York.

Of course, Sirianni did later admit to ESPN that “the guy was wearing a Giants hat and the Yankees shirt, and I felt like I had to defend our turf.”

How can Philadelphia not fall in love with that?

The answer, of course, is they love him because he’s winning, and they won’t love him when he loses. That’s just the way it works in every tough sports town. Right now, everything Sirianni touches turns to gold, just like it once did for the man that preceded him.

Pederson will return as the conquering hero on Sunday, with his place in Philadelphia sports history secure. But there won’t be any need for fans to long for the good old days, because the current days are pretty good, too. The Eagles are undefeated and this is Sirianni’s town.

At least for now.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent 22 years covering the Giants, Jets and NFL at large for SNY and the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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