PHOENIX — The Philadelphia Eagles are approaching the end of a campaign that included a franchise-record 14 regular-season wins and two dominant playoff victories as the NFC’s No. 1 seed en route to being the favorite in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team playing in their third big game in four seasons — and somehow, the Eagles’ identity remains closely reminiscent of its embodiment during their unprecedented 2017-2018 Super Bowl run.
Or that’s how Jason Kelce sees it.
Known for his “hungry dogs” Super Bowl Parade rant that rattled a Philadelphia fan base eager to feed off old negative statements about former head coach Doug Pederson and then-starting quarterback Carson Wentz’s replacement, Nick Foles, among others, Kelce has watched the Eagles find a familiar face amid notable staff and personnel changes in the last two years.
Instead of Pederson, it’s Nick Sirianni. Rather than Wentz or Foles, it’s Hurts. And the resemblance of the team’s breed has been ravishingly recognizable.
“Nick has really run with (the) ‘dog mentality,’ which really comes down to the same thing (as ‘hungry dogs’),” Kelce said at Monday’s Super Bowl LVII Opening Night presented by Fast Twitch.
Before Sirianni became a first-year NFL head coach at 39 years old, he had bounced around the league for more than a decade. Starting at the bottom of the coaching ladder as a quality control assistant for the Chiefs — of all teams — from 2009-11, he was then promoted to wide receivers coach ahead of a 4-12 season that prompted Andy Reid’s arrival with a whole new staff. Sirianni then reset, taking another quality control position with the San Diego Chargers that ultimately enabled him to coach quarterbacks and wide receivers in separate two-year stints until he relocated to be a non-play-calling offensive coordinator in Indianapolis from 2018-2020.
By the time the Eagles picked him up in 2021, they had just suffered the organization’s second-worst record of the century (4-12) in Pederson’s last season. To manage a turnaround of the required magnitude was quite a risk for a relatively young coach with no experience as an NFL play-caller.
Hurts’ path to making things work in Philadelphia was as much, if not more doubtful.
The No. 53 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft sat for much of his rookie season behind Wentz, who was generally perceived as the Eagles’ long-term starter, after a college career that had to be revived in Oklahoma upon transferring from Alabama, where he suddenly slipped from being a two-year starter to backing up Tua Tagovailoa during the 2018-19 season. The intense disappointment and subsequent motivation from the interruption have been well-documented in recent months.
But, where did all that leave him under Sirianni, a new head coach who had no hand in drafting him? Apparently, in a starting role.
The Eagles were well removed from their Super Bowl high, but a burning urge to undo the reputational damage that had been done seemed to peak upon Sirianni and Hurts’ pairing. Patience was needed, though. Rebuilding the team’s culture, even if it would practically follow the same process — minus the semantics — as Pederson’s one-year buildup, was going to take time.
“Everybody talks about connecting and being close, but I know this team is,” Sirianni said Monday. “They’ve worked hard at it.”
Two and a half months into Sirianni’s debut season, the Eagles were 5-6 entering a road divisional game of uber importance against the New York Giants.
And Hurts played dreadfully.
He completed just 45 percent of his 31 passes, with only 125 passing yards and zero touchdowns to three interceptions in a 13-7 loss. Through what was otherwise a closely-contested competition, Hurts tossed his final incompletion on fourth-and-10 to decide things.
Underwhelmed, the 23-year-old signal-caller collapsed his forearms upon his knee pads in defeat. Then, first-year starting left tackle Jordan Mailata rested his left hand on Hurts’ back, perhaps to indicate a level of understanding.
As a seventh-round draft pick, Mailata too had been overlooked. An underestimated player who underperforms may feel the most intense levels of despondency, as Hurts endured that night — though with Mailata by his side.
It was through experiences like these – this one captured in a photo that Sirianni has commemorated in his office – that culminated in the culture he seemingly established at a crash-course pace.
“It started in OTAs, in training camp, and Sirianni made it a point to make sure that we connected and built that relationship as a foundation to fall back on,” Mailata said of the expectation for all teammates. “If things don’t fare (well), we can always fall back on each other.”
The Eagles were eliminated in the wild-card round but only after a 9-8 regular season that marked considerable progress. Logically, the next step could’ve been as much as winning the NFC East division with a modestly improved regular-season record advancing just a little further in the playoffs.
The largely unforeseen breakthrough that has demanded the attention of all fans — not just Philly fanatics — instead followed.
Starting 8-0 for the first time in their 90-year history, the Eagles’ loss of an undefeated season and the subsequent pain shared among most coaches, players and supporters served as a sharp reminder of how far they’d come in such a short time.
“It’s being able to take being an underdog and just proving everybody wrong, not caring and overcoming whatever anybody thinks about you,” Reddick said. “That’s a Philly thing. It’s a Philly thing. Philly knows what that means.”
It’s as if the Eagles needed to relearn how to be underdogs until they could again shed the label. They’re 1.5-point favorites for Super Bowl 57, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
“I don’t need to say too much,” Hurts said. “We put all that work in, everything that we’ve kind of had to overcome.”