Sunday’s Super Bowl, between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs, will be full of fascinating story lines: Travis Kelce will play against his older brother, Jason; two Black starting quarterbacks will square off for the first time in the N.F.L.’s title game; and Andy Reid will face a team he coached for 14 seasons.
Another compelling element is that Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni is looking to beat the coach who fired him a decade ago. When Reid took over as Kansas City’s head coach in 2013, Sirianni was the team’s wide receivers coach. Reid, as is common for a new head coach, replaced him and others with coaches he was familiar with. They have spoken publicly about the firing, saying there are no hard feelings between them.
But being fired was a moment Sirianni never forgot.
His oldest brother, Mike, the football coach at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, remembered a call he got from his brother days before the end of the 2019 season. Nick Sirianni, rising through the N.F.L. ranks, was by then the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts. After the brothers caught each other up on their jobs and family, the conversation shifted when Nick asked his brother which team he was rooting for in the coming Super Bowl, between Kansas City and San Francisco.
Mike Sirianni told his brother he was rooting for Kansas City.
“‘You are?’” Mike Sirianni recalled Nick Sirianni saying. “‘Well, I hope you guys go to the national championship game and lose. They fired me!’”
“I was like, ‘Come on, man,’” Mike Sirianni said while laughing. “He said that exactly to me; that’s just his personality. He has a chip on his shoulder. He just won’t forget anything.”
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That mentality is why Sirianni and Philadelphia have been a perfect match. Philadelphia is infamous for having fans who won’t forgive those who wronged them (hello, Ben Simmons) and for making visiting fans miserable. Sirianni, whose rambling first news conference in January 2021 did not exactly instill the team’s fans with confidence, has become the embodiment of the Philadelphia sports fan: boastful, brash, trash-talking and, perhaps most important, not caring who doesn’t like it.
“I see he gets criticized a lot for being emotional,” offensive tackle Jordan Mailata said. “I don’t really mind that. I wouldn’t like a coach who didn’t wear his emotions out on the field.” Mailata said he preferred a coach who was easy to read. With Sirianni, he said, “you know when he’s happy, you know when he’s angry.”
Sirianni replaced Doug Pederson, who won the city’s first Super Bowl title, in the 2017 season, which explains the statue of him outside the team’s stadium. Pederson was beloved in Philadelphia after that win: Fans were enamored of his gutsy play-calling and embrace of the city’s underdog mentality. Some fans even got a Philly Special tattoo, after the trick play that helped the Eagles win it all.
Instead of being a calming presence to a fan base desperately needing one, Sirianni handled his first news conference like a nervous high school student in the early stages of a public-speaking class. He looked at his notes often but struggled to follow them, closing his eyes at points and repeating words. Days later, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a column titled: “Nick Sirianni Is the Eagles’ Newest Puppet, a Cross Between Barney Fife and Pinocchio.”
“I’ve been covering Eagles coaches’ news conferences for half a century, so I’ve seen them all. I’ve never seen one get off to a worse start than Nick Sirianni’s,” Ray Didinger, a sportswriter who covered the Eagles for decades, said on a podcast. “You can look back on it and laugh, but nobody was laughing then.”
As the 2021 season began, Sirianni did not do much to help himself. The Eagles started the season 2-5, their worst start since 1999. During a news conference in the days after the poor start, Sirianni told reporters that he showed the team a picture of a flower that was ready to bloom and described how, despite the team’s poor record, its figurative roots were growing. Fans and pundits criticized Sirianni for comparing the football team to a delicate flower, and weeks later, after a home loss to the Chargers in Week 9, someone threw a bouquet at him.
Then there are the T-shirts. So many T-shirts. In what seemed to be an attempt to pander to the fan base, Sirianni wore specially designed T-shirts displaying Eagles players’ faces or local lingo. There was one with quarterback Jalen Hurts, another with receiver DeVonta Smith and another with the popular “no one likes us, and we don’t care” phrase that the Eagles used during their Super Bowl run in the 2017 season. The one that caused the biggest stir, however, was Sirianni’s “Beat Dallas” shirt, which he wore the week leading up to the first Eagles-Cowboys game in Week 3. The Eagles were blown out, 41-21.
Sirianni apologized to his team this season before playing Dallas in Week 6. The Eagles won, 26-17. “This was stupid on my part last year,” Sirianni said while holding up the T-shirt and throwing it to the side in a team meeting.
Beyond banishing the shirt, much has changed this year for Sirianni. No one is throwing flowers at him, and he is loved by Eagles fans and hated by others for his sideline antics.
In the Eagles’ 1-point, Week 11 win against Indianapolis, which had recently fired one of Sirianni’s coaching mentors, Sirianni celebrated as if it were a championship. He emphatically threw his headset to the ground, stood on the team bench and yelled with fans. He eventually walked over and high-fived fans, screaming, “That’s for Frank Reich.”
In the Eagles’ divisional-round rout of the Giants, Sirianni ran to a camera and nodded his head slowly, a move Giants defensive back Julian Love said he didn’t like.
“That’s why everybody don’t like him now, because he fits the Philly way,” Eagles cornerback Darius Slay said.
Sirianni will take the field on Sunday as Philadelphia’s unlikely hero, with the swagger that embodies a city known for it — a stark contrast from that first news conference and blooming-flower analogies.
In the big game, he will have all of his family supporting him: Mike Sirianni promised he won’t be rooting for Kansas City this time.
Emmanuel Morgan contributed reporting.