PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Sirianni's first head-coaching job is a doozy.
He's taking over for Doug Pederson, the only coach to deliver Philadelphia a Super Bowl title. No pressure.
And he's walking into a thorny mess at quarterback. The Eagles' $128 million quarterback, Carson Wentz, finished 34th in completion percentage (57.4) and ranked first in interceptions (15) and sacks (50) last season despite being benched for the final four games in favor of rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts.
Wentz was so put off by how things went down that he planned to ask for a trade this offseason because of a broken relationship with Pederson, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. Pederson was fired on Jan. 11 after he and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie failed to get on the same page about the future. Wentz has not spoken publicly since the season ended and has yet to signal whether he sees a path forward in Philadelphia.
Management hopes there is one. Following Pederson's firing, Lurie said it "behooves us as a team with a new coach, a new coaching staff, to be able to really get him back to that elite progression." The quarterback situation was a central focus of the interview process with prospective head coaches, sources said. Lurie set the tone for those sessions by saying beforehand he sees Wentz as "very fixable" -- a stance they reportedly emphasized to candidates.
But, is Wentz fixable? And is Sirianni, 39, the man who can fix him?
What is Sirianni up against?
Wentz, the Eagles' 2016 first-round pick, has developed a reputation of being a challenge to coach.
He's a Type-A personality who has strong convictions and a stubborn streak to match. Early in Wentz's tenure, when he was ripping up the league and making a hard charge toward an MVP award in 2017, the positives of those traits were naturally emphasized.
"I remember going [to North Dakota State] and [Wentz] saying that his coaches used to say he had a lot of arguments with his offensive coordinator," former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said in 2017. "For me, I took that as a good thing, because he knew what he wanted, he knew what was good, and we welcomed that and that's a good dynamic."
Given Wentz's high football IQ, Pederson gave him more and more influence over the offense. He built in a "take it" system he compared to the one quarterback Peyton Manning used to run, where Wentz would get to the line of scrimmage and call out a play based off what he saw pre-snap. Wentz noted at the time he would go into Pederson's office upward of three times a day during the week to talk game planning, asking him, "What do you think about this idea?" and "How do you feel about this?"
While that cognitive ability and sense of ownership is what teams look for in a franchise quarterback, it has been taken to the extreme at times. Coaches have had difficulty convincing Wentz he doesn't have all the answers. He is often reluctant to play within the system, according to sources. That task of harnessing him became more difficult when Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who played the good cop/bad cop roles with great effectiveness, were poached from the staff following the team's 2017 championship run, leaving fewer voices that could keep Wentz in check.
A confluence of circumstances brought the situation to a head this past season. Wentz became irritated, a source said, when the freedom he is accustomed to having over the offense was largely stripped from him as injuries and inefficiency forced the coaches to simplify the approach. When he lost control, his faith in Pederson's playcalling was believed to be lost with it.
Some of Wentz's doubts were warranted. There was no discernable offensive identity to anchor into in 2020, sources said, partly as the result of a thrown-together coaching staff whose ideas and teachings didn't connect with one another. The issues on offense were compounded by a rash of injuries, including to the offensive line, which used a record 13 different starting combinations over the first 14 weeks.
Wentz was running an offense he didn't fully buy into, behind a battered front, without safety net tight end Zach Ertz, while throwing to a group of young wide receivers who had yet to develop chemistry with him. Bad combination. His confidence eroded as the hits mounted and was further affected, some believe, by the presence of Hurts, who was playing increasingly well with the scout team and continued to gain ground in Wentz's rearview mirror before eventually passing him.
Just how broken is Wentz?
Greg Cosell, senior producer at NFL Films and executive producer/analyst for the NFL Matchup show, believes Wentz's mechanics have become so out of whack coaches "need to start from scratch."
"They need to start literally with taking the snap, his drop, his plant, how he delivers a football," Cosell said.
Wentz is what Cosell describes as a "long strider." He has a wide base when he throws, something that became more pronounced during his down 2020 season. When you overstride and don't have a compact delivery, Cosell explained, you have to rush your arm to catch up, leading to inaccuracy, typically in the form of sailing balls. Wentz had the highest off-target percentage in the NFL last season at 23.6%, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In other words, almost a quarter of his throws were off the mark.
"That's one of his main fundamental issues that needs to be cleaned up. That is fixable. Anything from the waist down is fixable," Cosell said. "You're not going to change his delivery. He's never going to throw it like [Green Bay's] Aaron Rodgers or [Kansas City's] Patrick Mahomes in terms of just snapping it off. That's not the way he throws a ball. But that's OK, we've seen him have great success throwing the ball the way he throws it. But the lower half needs to be really fixed and worked on every single day."
Then there are the hesitancy issues. Wentz was often reluctant to "turn the ball loose to receivers who were open within the structure of the play design," as Cosell put it. "He was not seeing the field particularly well."
That can be traced back to Wentz's lack of confidence in the system, and eventually, himself.
How can Sirianni's system help Wentz?
We still have to see what the new coach's offense looks like, but we can take some clues from his days with the Colts.
Pederson's offense felt basic and repetitive last season, particularly when Wentz was under center. One of the more head-scratching factoids from a bizarre 2020 season is the Eagles ran more vertical routes than any team in the NFL according to ESPN Metrics/NFL Next Gen Stats, even with the offensive line severely banged up and the wide receivers unable to separate with great consistency. The Colts, meanwhile, ranked 24th in vertical routes run. The results were rather predictable: The Eagles allowed the most sacks (65) and had the third-most turnovers (29). The Colts finished in the top three in sacks allowed (21) and turnovers (15).
Of course, getting the ball out is in large part on the quarterback. Colts quarterback Philip Rivers has long been one of the best at it. He ranked fifth this past season in average time before throwing a pass (2.52 seconds), while Wentz ranked 31st (2.91 seconds).
The Colts finished 11th, 18th and 12th in offensive efficiency the past three seasons under Reich and Sirianni while working with three different primary quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett and Rivers. There has been a level of consistency even with a rotating cast at the top position, which has to be encouraging from Philadelphia's perspective.
What's the bottom line?
It comes down to trust.
Wentz's lack of trust in Pederson and his offense, and Pederson's lack of confidence in Wentz to heed his teachings and paint within the lines when necessary, led to the split. And, it can be argued that if Wentz is paired with a coach/coaches he greatly respects, as was the case with Reich once upon a time, Wentz will be more malleable, open-minded and self-critical.
It's possible Sirianni, Reich's former right-hand man, and Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who worked with Los Angeles Chargers rookie Justin Herbert last season, will hit the right notes and find that balance between coaching Wentz hard and empowering him.
It's more than fair to wonder, though, why Wentz would grant Sirianni -- a first-time head coach -- a greater degree of trust than he allotted to Pederson, who played QB in the league for a decade, helped the Eagles to three straight playoff appearances and has been a part of three Super Bowl teams as a coach and player.
Wentz has to not only buy into Sirianni and his assistant coaches, but needs to reestablish trust with the organization as well. With Hurts still on the roster, and split allegiances already forming in the locker room, can he convince himself 2021 will be anything other than a repeat of 2020 even with a new coach?
Wentz was once on a trajectory to become a top-five quarterback in the league. A host of things, from injuries to questionable management and personnel decisions to spotty coaching, factored into him getting off track. So, too, did an issue with coachability.
The ability is largely still there. Wentz might be fixable but he has to want to be fixed, and he has to allow others to help fix him. That will be the key, whether it's with Sirianni in Philly or elsewhere.