Scaling the ‘unclimbable mountain:' How the 2-5 start shaped Nick Sirianni


The Eagles and their rookie head coach were in trouble. Big, big trouble.

It was late October, and not only were the Eagles sitting 2-5 with one win in their last six games, their defense was getting torched on a weekly basis, their offense was sputtering behind a first-time starting quarterback, Nick Sirianni seemed overmatched as a play caller, and there really weren’t a whole lot of reasons for optimism.

Any way you measured it, they were one of the worst teams in football.

That’s what Nick Sirianni faced.

Talk about challenging.

He was still finding his way as an NFL head coach and had to keep his team together as an increasingly frustrated fan base wondered about this dude from Indy who wouldn’t stop talking about “dawg mentality.”

It was a pivotal moment not just for the Eagles’ 2021 season but for Sirianni’s coaching career.

“I was just trying to do my job as far as: ‘How do we handle getting better today?’” Sirianni recalled recently. “I think if you ask me the biggest thing I learned last year, (it’s that) as a position coach or as a coordinator, you’re constantly like, ‘OK, let’s look at the schedule. Win, win, loss, maybe win, loss, win-win-win, win.’ You kind of do that sometimes. ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to lose this one, we’ve got a chance to win this one. This one can go either way.

“But that is definitely not the way to do it when everybody’s looking at you, and so that really forced me to look at it like, ‘How are we going to win this next game?’ And that’s all that matters because if we don’t win that one, it’s not going to matter what (else) we do. So it was just staying in the moment, and I think that’s what I learned from it.

“And when you look at it that way, you can handle the criticism, you can handle what looks to be an unclimbable mountain. You can handle all those things because you’re just focusing your attention on … Detroit and you’re focusing on what are the little things that you need to do.”

In the days following the loss to the Raiders that dropped the Eagles to 2-5, Sirianni was able to convey all that to his players.

Don’t think about the won-loss record. Don’t worry about trying to go on a winning streak. Don’t dwell on the latest defeat. Just go out and have a great practice or a great lift or a great film study.

And worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

That’s when Sirianni used the metaphor of a plant becoming stronger as it grows unseen roots underground. The Eagles, he told his players, were like that plant, growing every day, invisible to the rest of the world.

And while the world rolled its eyes, the Eagles started to win.

They went to Detroit and blew out the Lions. After a loss to the Chargers, they won in Denver and then beat the Saints. They went 7-2 after the 2-5 start and became only the fifth team in NFL history to reach the playoffs after a 3-6 start – and only the second to do it under a rookie head coach.

Their improvement from four wins in Doug Pederson’s final season to nine wins last year marked the third-largest single-season improvement in the franchise’s 88-year history.

It’s not easy as a first-time head coach to gain the trust of your players. Even harder when you’re replacing a popular head coach who won a Super Bowl four years earlier. Harder still when you’re 2-5 and getting blown out every week.

How do you convince your players you have the answers?

That was the challenge facing Sirianni.

“We wanted to tell them to get better each day,” Sirianni said. “Well how? Intensity at practice, full detail in walkthrough, detail in meetings, full-speed to snap in walkthrough and getting better at your core values every day. 

“And so that is what we learned as a group in that 2-5 start and that’s the process I stuck to and I hate to be like a preacher on this or anything, but that’s the process of life, too. If you’re thinking like, ‘Oh, my Gosh, what’s going to happen in the future,’ you’re going to have a hard time dealing with today.

“And so I guess that’s always kind of been in me because I grew up in strong faith and still have it, but really just stuck to the process of, ‘Let’s handle today, let’s handle today, let’s handle today.’

“It was hard. It’s not that it was easy.”

The team’s confidence in dealing with that 2-5 start came from Sirianni.

Where did Sirianni’s confidence come from?

“I saw guys getting better,” he said. “I saw us as coaches getting better figuring out what we do better as a football team. And so I just felt great leadership from the team and with the guys that we had, and they were working and I didn’t think about, ‘Well, is this going to turn?’ I just thought about, ‘Oh, that was a good practice today.’

“I wasn’t like, ‘Aw man, is it going to turn?’ It was just, ‘We’re getting ready to beat Detroit today,’ and it’s going to help, and then we went out there and did what we did.”

Ignoring that meaningless season-ending loss to the Cowboys, the Eagles closed the season 7-2. From Week 8 through Week 17, only the Chiefs won more games.

And that turned Sirianni from a novice head coach who didn’t seem to have any answers to a Coach of the Year candidate who led his team to the playoffs and kept his players believing.

You need character players to be able to turn a 2-5 start into a playoff berth. And as Sirianni and Howie Roseman were adding to the roster this offseason, they made sure to consider only players who would react the same way as last year’s team did.

“It was huge for the program in the sense that we talked about what kind of football IQ and character does this guy have,” he said. “Because if that’s lacking a little bit, how is a guy that’s lacking that going to react – and this was said by Howie and me a lot – how’s this guy going when we’re 2-5?

“So it’s a baseline of the types of players you have and how they’re going to respond. That’s a huge thing. You never want to start 2-5, but it brings you back to, like, ‘How is this guy going to react to adversity?’ And adversity can look like 2-5, adversity can look like a friend passing away, a family member passing away, hardships at home, hardships with a relationship, whatever it is, how are these guys going to handle it? 

If all goes according to plan, the Eagles won’t be 2-5 again for quite a while.

But every team faces adversity at some point during the season, and the Eagles go into 2022 with a coach who’s shown he knows how to handle it and a veteran nucleus that’s shown it knows how to respond.

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