Nick Sirianni leaned against a wall in a Lincoln Financial Field hallway, and as the Eagles coach recounted his speech from the night before to his team, he’d jogged his memory to pull a full prognosis on a horrific leg injury he suffered as a Mount Union sophomore 20 years ago.
He tore the muscle off the bone. He ripped every ligament in the ankle. He had compartment syndrome and a staph infection.
“Last night was about kind of the junk we’ve been through in our lives—so I kinda started it off with that story,” Sirianni told me. “And then I had them thinking about their stuff that they’ve been through in their lives. The point of it was I wanted them to think of something that happened in their life that they overcame, and it made them who they are today. Because all of us have that story. I told them my story. I wanted them to think of their story.
“And it was to say to them, We’re really mentally tough. We’ve all been through s---. There’s gonna be points in this game where we’re gonna get punched in the face. That’s what happens in a heavyweight championship bout. You punch, you get punched, but it’s about keep rolling. It’s about keep going.”
The Eagles didn’t face quite the resistance from the 49ers in the NFC championship that Sirianni and his players expected when they gathered the night before at the team hotel.
Sunday’s game won’t be remembered as a classic. The Eagles won 31–7 over a Niners team that had both its quarterbacks—the third and fourth they’ve gone through this year—go down in-game. It was 21–7 at the half after an unsightly mistake by Josh Johnson broke the game open in the final minute of the first half. A Johnson concussion two and a half minutes into the second half effectively ended the game.
But for Sirianni and his players, Sunday’s game will be remembered for how it served as another symbol of just how tough-minded this team has become. The Eagles ran the ball in the red zone, tackled exceptionally well, and leaned on their identity of dominating the lines of scrimmage on offense and defense. They were, in short, unapologetically themselves, a reflection, as Sirianni said, of where they’ve been and where they’re going.
And where they’re going next is Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix.
Welcome to the championship game edition of The MMQB. We’ve got a lot to get to this week, including …
• A look at how Kansas City, and its quarterback, keep proving their greatness.
• An early list of Super Bowl questions.
• How I see the Jets and Aaron Rodgers.
• Where things stand between the Raiders and Derek Carr.
• Senior Bowl players to watch this week in Six From Saturday.
But we’re starting in South Philly.
Here’s the other part of Sirianni telling that story, about his shattered leg—it exposes him to a level of vulnerability that old-school coaches sometimes never reach with their players.
And that’s part of why this has all worked the last 24 months, even if few thought it would when Sirianni was hired in January 2021. He was a coach who had never even interviewed for another head coaching job, and one called to Palm Beach to meet with owner Jeffrey Lurie as he was wrapping up some family time on the other side of the state (he didn’t even have a suit with him, so Eagles brass told him to dress casually, and they would, too).
Sirianni’s never afraid to open himself up, and the players saw it almost immediately after he had his infamous first press conference with the Philadelphia media. His establishing message on that one, even as he was trying to build up credibility in the locker room?
“After his first press conference he came in, and he was like, I s--- the bed on that one.” veteran tackle Lane Johnson told me after Sunday’s win, laughing. “What I like about Nick is he’s vulnerable.”
And his players are now, too, and it’s benefited them on and off the field.
It starts, really, with the way Philly studies tape as a team. There are notes assigning blame and what went wrong as part of every single practice snap and every game snap, and it’s not just for the players. You might see a coach called out for not working technique quite right, or messing up a play call, and all that detail is in there, too.
The hope was that learning that way—together—would not only tighten up the operation but also tighten the bonds within the team, something that’s central to how Sirianni wanted to build the Eagles, and part of a plan that resonated fast with Lurie in his interview.
“You [need] somebody that really connects with other coaches and players and everyone in the building in a way like Nick Sirianni does, and I thought he would,” Lurie told me. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have the buy-in. I think in today’s NFL, you gotta be strong, but you gotta be someone who relates to everybody and is humble. And he’s got a group of players that are humble, team-oriented and quietly very confident.”
That’s why all of the games, and team-building activities that Sirianni staged in his first year—stuff that was poked at and made fun of in the moment—stuck.
The team leaned in to all of that through Jalen Hurts’s two-week absence down the stretch, rebounded in Week 18 to sew up the No. 1 seed and home field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and was ready to hit the gas in the playoffs—and has accelerated to wins by an aggregate score of 69–14 the past two weeks.
Of course, this hasn’t been all trust falls and truth telling.
There are plenty of football reasons the Eagles are here, too.
Sirianni’s interview with the Eagles two years ago was his first for a head coaching spot, and still stands as the only one he’s ever done. Hurts was the 53rd pick in the 2020 draft, the fourth quarterback selected and one who transferred from Alabama—where some pro scouts had evaluated him as a tailback prospect—for Oklahoma after being benched. Even GM Howie Roseman once had the GM title taken and had to win it back.
The way this team has been put together is a little different. And it’s behind an owner who’s now hired three coaches who’ve gotten the Eagles to the Super Bowl, has gone there with three different quarterbacks, and is, well, doing this differently by design.
“What it is, is, we follow what we think is right,” Lurie says. “And we don’t have any outside noise whatsoever. With Nick, or hiring Andy [Reid], or hiring Doug [Pederson], choosing Jalen, nothing mattered except trying to do the right thing. And we saw the upside in Jalen; it wasn’t anything but that—it was huge upside in somebody who is an incredibly mature leader and wants to be great. … There are very few, the ones that really want to be great, where everyone else feeds off them. And he’s 24 years old, and everyone feeds off him.”
The approach, beyond just hiring a coach and GM, has led to pulling every lever in player procurement. They traded for disgruntled veterans (Darius Slay) and guys in contract disputes (A.J. Brown, C.J. Gardner-Johnson). They signed big-ticket free agents (Haason Reddick, James Bradberry) and older street free agents (Linval Joseph). They drafted and developed their own (Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham), and made up for their draft misses (Jalen Reagor, Andre Dillard). They have an Aussie left tackle (Jordan Mailata).
And, yet, they’re still grounded in building up front, and around four guys (Johnson, Kelce, Graham and Cox), two on each side, who’ve been with them for a decade.
Maybe more than anything else, on this particular Sunday, that foundation showed up in the biggest way possible. The Eagles’ 148 yards rushing came at a clip of just 3.4 yards per attempt, but the ones that counted most were in the biggest spots. All four of Philly’s touchdowns—six- and 13-yarders from Miles Sanders, a 10-yarder from Boston Scott and a one-yarder from Hurts—came on the ground. The first three, absent Hurts’s score on a sneak, finished with the back scoring standing up, a good sign that the blocking was airtight.
And Scott’s touchdown, and Sanders’s first one, actually came on the same play call, which is just another indication that when Philly needed yards on the ground, it could get them.
“There’s a recipe in football,” Johnson says. “A lot of times, even in college, you see what Alabama’s been doing—throw the football, but really pound it when they need to.”
On defense, for Philly, it was about pounding the quarterback. The injuries to Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson resulted from exactly what Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon drew up last week, with Gannon mixing up simulated pressure and guys getting to the quarterback. Having the talent to do it with, of course, helped.
One such example is Reddick, who had a drive-killing sack in the first quarter, and then another in which he bent back, and hyperextended, Purdy’s throwing elbow, more or less sealing the Niners’ fate. Another was Ndamukong Suh, who hit Josh Johnson hard enough in the third quarter to where his head snapped back as he was falling to the ground.
“Haason’s rush and just the exceptional play of the entire group—you never want to see [a guy get hurt], I hope Brock’s O.K. And I hope he recovers well from this, because he’s had a phenomenal year, but your job is to hit the quarterback, and it’s a physical game,” Sirianni says. “I hope he’s O.K., but our defensive line did its job, and did it legally, right? They did a phenomenal job being physical, physically tough with him and getting after him, making him uncomfortable.”
So as the offense grinded out drives of double-digit plays and over 65 yards for three of its four touchdowns (the other was on the weird Josh Johnson fumble that Reddick covered), the defense took advantage of the 49ers’ struggles at quarterback, and that was that.
In 13 days, the first Super Bowl coach that Lurie hired will stand in the way of the third one bringing Philly its second Lombardi Trophy. And that it’s happening, again, with a third quarterback, underscores an important point—as good as Sirianni and Hurts have been for this team, like Reid and Donovan McNabb once were, it’s about a whole lot more than just the coach and quarterback in Philly.
“We haven’t had a Hall of Fame quarterback, so we’ve been able to put together, I think, a great culture, great leaders, great coaches and amazing players,” Lurie says. “And it takes a village. It really takes everybody. And unless you have Tom Brady, it’s a grind, and these are grinders. And as I said to the team, we’ve got the trophy, because we’ve got players that truly accept the grind and revel in it, and the coaches, too.”
And sure enough, the owner’s a part of that, too.
“He does everything he can to help us do our jobs at a high level and gives us every resource we need, helps us in any way he can,” Sirianni says. “That’s huge. And then there is outside-the-box thinking. I’m sure a lot of people in the city were like, Who’d we hire? Who’s the guy we hired? What’d he do? Did he even call plays in Indy? So I’m really grateful and blessed and thankful to them for giving me this opportunity.
“And it’s just a well-run organization from top-down. From our PR department to our cafeteria staff to our trainers to our doctors, there’s so many people that do such a good job here, and it all starts with Mr. Lurie just doing everything he can do to put the right people in place. It’s a special organization. I’m glad I’m part of it, and hopefully we can bring another one home here.”
It was also an organization that was at its best when another really good one couldn’t be Sunday—with the Niners struggling (they had one first down and 27 yards on 16 offensive plays after Josh Johnson went down) in the face of a borderline impossible quarterback situation—and that’s where Philly’s mental toughness showed up again.
The Eagles took advantage of their opportunities Sunday. They leaned on their identity and kept the Niners away from any thought of a glass-slipper scenario by adjusting to the circumstances deftly, playing keep-away with a deliberate offense and playing defense tight to the line to snuff out runs and screens.
Once all that was taken care of—back in that hallway—Sirianni rejoined his family, which added another layer to the lesson he tried to give his players the night before on mental toughness.
“My dad was the best example of that for me,” he says. “He had cancer two times while I was growing up, and to be honest with you, I don’t even know if I knew, because he just put his head down and went. So I got a good role model there with my pops.”
His dad, to borrow the phrase, just kept going.
And Sirianni’s Eagles certainly have, too.