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August 16, 2021

John McMullen: Competitive advantage season stops at running back for the Eagles

Opinion Eagles
Nick_Sirianni_2_Eagles_Camp_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 2: Head Coach Nick Sirianni of the Philadelphia Eagles talks to Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen at the Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp on August 2, 2021 at NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to credit photographer. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 Kate Frese (Photo by Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

Through the first 12 practices of Camp Sirianni, my biggest takeaway is just how much the Eagles rookie head coach craves the competitive advantage card.

During last week’s preseason opener, a 24-16 setback to Keystone State rival Pittsburgh in which the deep reserves faltered after a crisper cameo from Nick Sirianni’s key components, the play caller’s favorite flavor was vanilla, a nod to the presence of Atlanta senior pro scout Rob Kisiel, who was in town getting an advanced look at the Falcons’ Week 1 opponent.

“One of the things we have to our advantage is that nobody really knows what we're running,” Sirianni explained. “To say we're going to show everything [against the Steelers] or the following preseason game or the following preseason games, it's just not going to be the case.”

To a certain extent, all NFL coaches believe Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are lurking around the next corner ready to blow the lid off of their own secretive surveillance states.

Without a whistleblower how in the world could Kisiel or Atlanta defensive coordinator Dean Pees, a 40-plus year coaching veteran by the way, possibly decipher they are going to see an RPO or two on Sept. 12?

The whole mindset is silly but Sirianni takes it to the extreme.

For example, Jordan Mailata has outplayed Andre Dillard at left tackle and the latter sprained his knee last week and has subsequently been labeled as week-to-week moving forward in an environment where he needs the Rocky-like comeback but lacks the one ability he literally has to have to pull it off — availability.

The last time Sirianni spoke we were officially under one month before the season-opener and the coach was still playing the game, however.

“Still got a lot of time,” Sirianni insisted. “We still got a lot of time to work through everything and a lot more time before we play Atlanta. So not there yet. Just want to continue to see Jordan get better every single day.”

Not there because Brett Toth had a nice seal block on Quez Watkins’ 79-yard catch and run vs. the Steelers or because Le’Raven Clark was about to return to practice? Because Dillard is no longer relevant for Week 1 at least yet the mind games march on.

At quarterback, the head-scratching is even greater. Jalen Hurts has taken every first-team rep since the start of camp, not even sitting one out to tie his cleats or for an equipment issue. The second-year QB was treated like an entrenched starter against the Steelers yet the game is still being played to the point national pundits with no boots on the ground have been feigned to think there is an actual competition that doesn’t involve Deshaun Watson miraculously arriving in Philadelphia.

It was backup Joe Flacco who had to explain the real deal on Saturday.

“I’ve said from the very beginning [compeition] is the kind of way I’m approaching it just because I’m letting myself down if I take it any other way," the veteran said. "I think Jalen is doing a good job and obviously he’s taken all the reps with the ones.”

All of that is why it was so interesting that Sirianni rolled out his own trend-buster to his competitive advantage devotion when talking about his running backs.

The background to it all was Miles Sanders’ treatment in the preseason opener.

Despite saying everyone who was healthy would play against the Steelers, Sirianni backtracked with only two players: recently-arrived receiver Marken Michel who simply wasn’t up to speed on the offense, and Sanders, the young home-run hitter who could use some reps to hone his receiving and pass-protection skills.

Sirianni, though, didn’t want to see anything else from the Penn State product, seemingly a clear foreshadowing that his offense is going to lean on the young back.

“We just felt like we have seen him, we know what he is, we know that we’re excited about him,” said Sirianni. “We’re really excited about him, wanting to keep him fresh, and we’ll reevaluate and look at next week and if he’ll play next week.”

Fast forward to the weekend and Sirianni made things even clearer for the Falcons and anyone else paying attention. Yes, Sanders is the guy when the Eagles have the running threat on the table but he's going to get plenty of help from Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and rookie Kenny Gainwell when it comes to the areas he's not as adept, things like catching the football on angle routes, splitting out wide or pass protection.

Ironically, Sirianni busted his own competitive advantage trend when asked about trend-busting by PhillyVoice.

“I think I've always been — and especially in that room, piecemeal it together. And that's our job as coaches to make sure you're not tipping your hand,” the coach explained. “... that's just our job as coaches.

“Who does what well and let him do that. But without giving tips to the defense.”

John McMullen is a contributor to, and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.comFollow John on Twitter.