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June 05, 2022

John McMullen: Handing off play-calling duties says a lot about Nick Sirianni

Eagles NFL
Nick-Sirianni-Eagles-Bucs_011622_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Nick Sirianni in the Eagles' January 2022 playoff game in Tampa.

PHILADELPHIA - The Eagles aren’t getting a lot of grass time this spring and that means the opportunities to check in on the city’s favorite pastime are a bit limited.

Last Friday was one of those windows and it was accompanied by a tsunami of news, everything from the 30-person shakeup in the front office to Jalen Hurts’ passionate soliloquy on gun violence and the QB1’s on-field chemistry with DeVonta Smith.

The somewhat buried lede, however, came from the leadoff hitter on the day, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who spoke to the media for the first time since the 2021-22 campaign ended in Tampa.

And Steichen came bearing gifts before practice.

“Going forward, I'll be calling the plays next year, and we'll go from there,” Steichen said.

Wait, what?

In actuality that wasn’t much of a bombshell to those who were paying attention last season as the shift from head coach Nick Sirianni to Steichen as the play-caller came at midseason. Sirianni was intent of getting a better handle on his entire team without getting bogged down by the weight of play-to-play decision-making.

It was, however, downplayed with the explanation of just how collaborative things are in the game-planning process, something Steichen again addressed Friday.

“I think last year we were a new staff, and we were evolving as an offense,” Steichen explained. “So as the season got going on, I ended up taking over more of the play calling midseason. Then again, Nick has a stamp on every single thing we do. So, in the meeting rooms, he has a stamp on everything we do, every play that's on that call sheet, he makes sure it's justified, boom, and we're good to go.”

Unless ordered from above, and there is no evidence pointing to that, the shift says a lot about Sirianni when it comes to both ego and his ability to adjust.

There will be those playing to the least common denominator who boil it down to the caveman logic of "Eagles bad when Sirianni was calling the plays" and "Philadelphia good when Steichen was in charge."

Hurts is obviously the most important on-field extension of the setup and the play-calling approach to start the 2021 season seemed at least a little convoluted to those on the outside, looking in.

At first, Sirianni would give the play call to Steichen, who would be the one in Hurts’ ear because the head coach wanted that consistency in communication to always be in place even if he was off dealing with other things at times.

The middle man was deemed an unnecessary step through trial and error.

“We have a system,” Steichen said. “We have an opener. We go through the third downs. We go through everything we do, week in and week out, so we're prepared for the game. So once the game starts, we're kind of on the same page.”

More so, if Sirianni wants something called at a certain moment he will not hesitate to make it known.

“On game day, he's the head coach,” Steichen said, "And if he wants something called, he'll tell me and I'll get it called.”

From there, if Sirianni wants to make adjustments to the call sheet in between drives, he has that opportunity.

“Then in between series just like every team probably does around the league, you talk through the next series of plays, ‘Hey, here's what we're going to go with, boom, boom, boom, be ready for this in this situation,’ just so all the coaches are on the same page,” said Steichen.

The other part of this is the scale back from a pass-first team to a run-first one which happened to match up with Steichen taking over the controls for the most part.

That, however, was also obviously a Sirianni-fueled decision baked in during the week. The original philosophy was the default of what Sirianni and Steichen really wanted to do and anyone who hears either speak on Philip Rivers and his ability to run an offense will quickly understand that.

The Eagles, however, realized they put too much on Hurts’ plate early and also had perhaps the best offensive line in football, so the change was made and should serve as a feather in Sirianni’s cap as well. It's evidence of him being a malleable coach who isn’t going to keep pounding the square peg in the round hole.

Former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz used to tell me the offseason was for teaching, training camp was for evaluation and once September rolled around it was all about preparation for the next opponent.

You can add laboratory time to the offseason work. The spring and summer are about what a football team wants to be and preparing for that goal. The regular season is the reality check where good coaches do whatever is necessary to hang the next W.

You already know what the Eagles want to be and that was only further cemented by the first-round pick and $100 million on top of it invested in A.J. Brown. What they will be is again dependent on Hurts and his development.

The QB1 is excited to be in the same system for consecutive seasons for the first time since his high school days.

“I think he tries to put guys in positions to make plays,” Hurts said of Steichen. “I think there’s a lot of consulting going on throughout the week. You have Nick Sirianni, K.P. [passing game coordinator Kevin Patullo], Coach Brian Johnson and myself, we’re all getting together, talking about what do we want to do? How do we want to attack this? Put guys in these situations.

“It’s a collaborative thing, but I think [Steichen] does a great job and I’m excited to have him back again.”

All that said, there is a difference when it comes to feel and what lever is pulled in the moment when it comes to play-calling. This is something Sirianni admitted when talking about facing different play-callers in unique circumstances last season like Pat Shurmur testing positive for COVID-19 in Denver or Jason Garrett being fired in-season by the Giants.

The Eagles were facing the same offenses but with different minds running them (Mike Shula and Freddie Kitchens, respectively).

Steichen noted that he and Sirianni think very similarly about offense dating back to their four years together with the Chargers. There is no such thing as a hive mind or complete assimilation like The Borg for you Star Trek devotees, though.

“There are going to be differences,” Sirianni admitted when talking about the shift from Garrett to Kitchens last year with the Giants. “It’s not going to be the same, and that’s just the case with anybody calling it. If Coach Kitchens and Coach Garrett have the same philosophy, even if they think about football exactly the same, it’s still going to play out different.”

Sirianni is now a CEO coach in Year 2 and that path takes guts and opens up plenty of avenues for second-guessing for a guy who was hired to be an offensive play-caller.

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 Follow John on Twitter here.