I’m not breaking any news here by telling you that football coaches can be stubborn.
Quite often, that stubbornness ends up putting them in the unemployment line.
Nick Sirianni had a plan for the Eagles’ offense last summer. It’s safe to say it didn’t include running the ball nearly 40 times a game.
But his plan also didn’t include losing five of his first seven games and scoring more than 22 points in just two of those seven games.
He had a choice at that point. He could stick to the plan and hope the light would eventually go on for his inconsistent young quarterback, Jalen Hurts.
Or he could take the pressure off of Hurts, switch to a ball-control, run-based offense and play to his greatest offensive strength, which was his offensive line.
Sirianni wisely opted for what was behind Door No. 2 and that decision ended up saving the Eagles’ season and getting him a handful of NFL coach of the year votes.
His decision to start running the ball more and throwing it less not only took the pressure off of Hurts, but also off of a shell-shocked defense that had allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a league-worst 75 percent of their passes.
The Eagles averaged 38.6 rushing attempts per game in their last 10 games. They won seven of them and ended up making a cameo appearance in the postseason.
The Eagles finished first in the league in rushing, averaging 159.7 yards per game on the ground, which was 10 more than runnerup Indianapolis.
While Hurts continued to be inconsistent as a passer, he spearheaded their ground game. He finished seventh in rushing first downs (56), sixth in rushing touchdowns (10) and second in rushing first downs on third down (22).
It was the main reason why the Eagles managed to finish with the league’s fourth best third-down percentage (45.7) despite the fact that Hurts finished 31st in third-down completion percentage.
Here's the thing, though. While their heavy emphasis on the run helped the Eagles win seven of their last 10 games, many of them against bad teams, it’s really not a good long-term solution for success.
You win in the NFL by throwing the football.
The Eagles were the only team to make the playoffs last season with a run-play percentage above 50 percent (51.2, 59.0 in those last 10 games.
The Super Bowl-champion Rams had a 39.7 run-play percentage. The Super Bowl runnerups, the Bengals, were at 41.7. The only other playoff teams with a run percentage above 45.0 were the Titans (48.6), 49ers (47.7) and Patriots (46.5).
“You see it done many different ways throughout the NFL as far as how teams get it done,” Sirianni told reporters this week at the NFL owners meeting in Palm Beach, Fla..
“You can be a top-ranked run team. You can be a top-ranked passing team. The main stat that we’re always focused on is did we win the explosive-play battle and did we win the turnover battle. You saw last year that even in a run-heavy offense, we were able to be an explosive pass offense with the amount of explosive plays we made.’’
Actually, Nick, I didn’t see that. According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles were tied for 19th in 20-plus yard pass plays with 26 in their last 10 games after focusing on the run .And they finished 18th for the season in turnover differential (0).
“We’re going to do whatever we feel gives us the best chance to win games,” Sirianni said. “We don’t have to make a decision on who we are until the first game. And even then, that evolves.”
The fact of the matter is, Sirianni doesn’t want to average 38 carries a game again this season.
He’s all for a balanced offensive attack, but they didn’t spend the 10th pick in the draft last year on DeVonta Smith to run the ball 38 times a game. They aren’t going to take another wide receiver in the first round this year to run the ball 38 times a game.
But everything revolves around Hurts. The Eagles need him to be better this season than he was last season. He knows that. Sirianni knows that. Owner Jeffrey Lurie knows that.
“We want to have both a dynamic passing attack and an excellent running attack, all built around a terrific offensive line,” Lurie said this week in Florida. “We’re always going to be a team that emphasizes the trenches. It gives you the capability to adjust your offense to what is happening around it, like we did last year.”
Asked about Hurts, Lurie said, “I don’t think there’s anything he won’t be able to do. He will do anything and everything to get better and work on every weakness he has and try to maximize the strengths he has.
“That’s why we’re committed to Jalen at age 23. Who knows what the future holds, right?’’
In other words, you’ve got one more year to prove you’re the guy, buddy. After that, all bets are off.
Hurts has been in southern California the last several weeks working with a quarterback coach on his mechanics. NFL rules forbid the Eagles coaches from working with their players for another three weeks.
“We’re going to work like crazy to get our pass game to where we want it,”Sirianni said. “I think our pass game was like 25th or 26th last year. That needs to be better. You want to make sure you’re not deficient in any area. Because then teams that are game-planning against you will have an opportunity to take advantage of that.” *