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Mike Sielski: Rock, Paper, Lessons: The Eagles’ Super Bowl run should teach fans, media, and the NFL some things

PHILADELPHIA — In 1917 — roughly 104 years before Nick Sirianni entered the NovaCare Complex, hopped on a Zoom call with a couple of dozen reporters, and flunked Public Speaking 101 — a scholar named Walter Brandenburg published a book called The Philosophy of Christian Being. Despite its thrilling title and themes, Brandenburg’s tome was not the Fifty Shades of Harry Potter: Inside Donald Trump’s Plot to Steal the Singing Crawdads of its day. But it did introduce the term “teachable moment” into the American lexicon (page 84: “to take advantage of this opportune time, this teachable moment …”).

Walter Brandenburg would have loved the 2022-23 Eagles. Their rise into a Super Bowl team has been loaded with teachable moments. They’ve been providing examples that should help fans, media members, and people in and around the NFL reconsider their preconceptions and assumptions — preconceptions and assumptions that might not be true anymore, if they ever were. Here are a few of the lessons that everyone should have learned:

A head coach’s introductory press conference doesn’t necessarily matter.

One of the most tiresome clichés in sports coverage is the assertion that a coach “won the press conference,” which is just a way-cool-sports-dude way of saying that the coach came off well while answering questions. Well, Sirianni did not win his introductory press conference. His introductory press conference smacked him with a trash can lid and gnawed on his knuckles. His introductory press conference was Muhammad Ali, and Sirianni was Steve Urkel. Georgia-TCU wasn’t as one-sided.

So here we are, two years later, and all the cheap jokes at Sirianni’s expense have faded from memory. And all the dire warnings about how the Eagles had hired a guy who was in over his head have turned out to be false. And Sirianni’s poor first impression apparently hasn’t prevented him from earning his players’ respect. And man, that Joe Judge sure seemed smart and tough when the Giants hired him, didn’t he?

A head coach’s colorful quotes can matter … to his players.

As if people weren’t skeptical enough about Sirianni in 2021, he mentioned that he played Rock, Paper, Scissors against several college prospects at the NFL scouting combine, then revealed that, during a team meeting, he put up a picture of a flower and told the players that “what’s going on here is that there’s growth under the soil.”

Corny? Maybe. Not exactly stereotypical football coachspeak? You bet. Happy high school horse hockey? An old-timer might call it that. But since his arrival, Sirianni has been nothing if not authentic, and his players appreciate that aspect of his personality. After the Eagles’ 31-7 victory over the 49ers in the NFC championship game, defensive end Brandon Graham was asked how the team went from 4-11-1 in 2020 to Super Bowl LVII this year.

“You know what it is?” Graham said. “Last year y’all was talkin’ flowers and all that other stuff. That’s what it was. We went through the hard part of the year, finished out the season, made the playoffs. We end up losing, and we felt that. I feel like we just came back with a focus.”

A young quarterback playing well while on a rookie contract is the NFL’s cheat code.

The magic of Jalen Hurts’ season isn’t just in his individual performance. It’s the timing of that performance: his third year with the Eagles, while he counts less than $2 million against the salary cap, after Howie Roseman used that ample cap space to fortify the rest of the roster.

A young quarterback can make a great leap.

It’s a risk. A team can spend a couple of seasons hoping that a quarterback will develop only to find out that all that waiting was a waste. But Hurts did develop, in a single offseason, and the Eagles were only the latest example of a franchise being rewarded for such patience.

Based on what he saw during Tom Brady’s rookie season, Bill Belichick wasn’t certain that the Patriots should have used even a sixth-round pick on him, according to Seth Wickersham, the author of It’s Better to Be Feared, the definitive book on Brady and his role in the Patriots’ dynasty. The kid who would become the greatest quarterback of all time had so far to go that his coach doubted he could do it. “It was after his rookie season, into 2001, when he improved phenomenally and set the stage for everything we see now,” Wickersham said Wednesday on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

What is old in the NFL can be new again.

For all the league’s rules changes to protect quarterbacks and make passing easier and more dynamic, 2022 was the season that the ground game became trendy again — and arguably more effective than it has ever been. The average NFL team ran the ball 27.3 times a game, the most since 2011, and gained 4.5 yards per carry, the highest such figure in league history, according to the database Pro Football Reference. With Hurts, their great offensive line, and three excellent running backs, the Eagles were at the vanguard of that strategic shift.

A general manager doesn’t have to be a “football guy” to be successful.

This notion and the bias underpinning it — that someone who didn’t play or coach football is necessarily less equipped to build a winning football team — should have died quick deaths years ago. Just in case they haven’t, though, Roseman’s work in assembling this roster ought to make sure they have.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni reacts after a touchdown was called back on a penalty in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni reacts after a touchdown was called back on a penalty in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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