As we learn more about Head Coach Nick Sirianni and his methods of teaching – and remember, he comes from a family of educators and coaching football is very much a teaching process – it's important to take note of the times we can observe him in action with a player. Case in point: Wide receiver Jalen Reagor, who had a moment of tough-love coaching in practice on Wednesday and bounced back with a productive session on Thursday at NovaCare Complex.
What happened behind the scenes that helped Reagor? It started with the connection between the coaching staff, Sirianni included, and Reagor. A second-year player, Reagor is coming off a rookie season during which injuries limited him to 11 games and 31 receptions for 396 yards and a touchdown. He's looking to take that next step, something that is most prevalent for players between seasons one and two. With a new coaching staff in place – an exception is Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead, who is here for a second campaign – Reagor wants to impress at every turn. Sirianni, obviously, wants Reagor to make progress every day – one percent better is a daily message at the NovaCare Complex – so how could the coaching staff use a difficult practice that Reagor had on Wednesday and turn it into a positive?
Having an established and trusted connection with Reagor and the coaches was step one. With that in place, built during the days together in the spring and through the first week of Training Camp, made it all work, and provided credibility to something Sirianni said prior to Thursday's practice.
"To say that you're going to coach everybody, the exact same, it's just not – it's again where I'm glad to have my background in teaching, right, and education. It's just not done that way. The only thing that's important is that the coaching point goes through, and that the player gets better from it," Sirianni told reporters. "And so every player is handled differently and that's why it always starts with a connection. And like, because you've got to know the player that you're coaching to be able to reach him. So that's why I think that's so important."
In the case of Reagor, very directly and for everyone to see, it worked on Thursday. He bounced back with a practice that impressed the coaching staff. Oh, it wasn't perfect – Reagor dropped a very catchable pass in the end zone during a red zone drill after making a jaw-dropping move on a defensive back that was absolutely dazzling – but it was really, really good. Reagor ran his routes with confidence, caught the ball very well, and was explosive in every phase of his game.
After the on-field work on Thursday, Sirianni talked to me about Reagor's morning of work.
"It was great to see Jalen have a practice like that today. Now it's about stacking practices like that one on top of the other. Building the right habits in his technique that will allow his God-given ability to take over," Sirianni said. "You saw moments where his technique was perfect today. When you know what to do with the fundamentals, it translates into great technique. Then you can just let your athleticism shine through. He ran a bench route on the sideline during practice. It was a great route and a great throw from (quarterback Joe) Flacco. Fundamentals, technique, and athletic ability led to a great play."
And connecting and communicating directly led to Reagor's improved day. This is exactly what Sirianni means when he discusses his five tenants of coaching – Connection, Competition, Accountability, Football IQ, Fundamentals – and how following those can lead to success on the football field. What happened with Reagor was a direct representation of the coaches' process with the players. It is why Sirianni takes so much time to talk to his players about what he demands from them and then explains to them in a storytelling format so that they can easily digest and remember. It all ties together for Sirianni and the players because, when it boils down to the basics, the five tenets are fairly common points of emphasis that players have been following their entire lives.
The way that Sirianni communicates and teaches is what makes him unique, and it is clearly – as evidenced by Reagor's steps forward on Thursday – being digested by the players.
"You know what my experience is, is that if you're helping a guy become better, that's all that these players really want is how do we – can this guy make me better and when that is the case, I think you can coach them as hard as you want to," Sirianni said. "Now my philosophy is that, 'Hey, I want it to be harder out here on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, than it is going to be on Sunday.' And that's kind of something I learned from my old head coach, (Former University of Mount Union Head Coach) Larry Kehres. He would yell and scream at us all week and then Saturday during the games, we didn't get yelled at unless we did something really messed up. That's my philosophy as far as that goes."
Sometimes Sirianni wanders off in an unusual direction with his stories and the players kind of look around and wonder where he is headed with his words, but Sirianni always winds back to the main message. The other day, for example, he told a story about a hot dog-eating contest and why the best of the best in the world are so good at what they do. He can mix in a story like that and then come back with a Kobe Bryant tale that resonates with the team.
It's the power of connection, of communication, and of a player improving his craft.
"I have these messages that I want to get across. So how do I get those messages across? I think it's the art of storytelling. I guess I'm a good storyteller," Sirianni said. "So you can have this storytelling, but then visual is so big in our profession. If I'm going to teach a quarterback how to read a play, what are we going to do? We are going to go to the video. If I'm going to teach a receiver how to run a route, what are we going to do? We're going to go to the video. I'll set the stage of a message a lot and then we'll go to a video.
"I love Kobe Bryant and everything he stood for as a player. I find myself having a lot of videos on him but it's anybody, right. The video that (linebacker) JaCoby (Stevens) was talking about was (Takeru) Kobayashi and I'll tell you about that. Our fifth core value is fundamentals, and Kobayashi, there's this video of Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut competing and they go, 'Why is Kobayashi so good at eating hot dogs?' The details and fundamentals he puts into it – he has to have the right temperature of water to dunk the thing. He has to break the hot dog perfectly in half.
"So my point on that is, yeah, we are all seeing it and watching it, and it's like, 'What's the point of that?' My point is, if you want to be the best in the world at what you do, right, on the football field, it comes down to the little things and that right there was a fundamental talk. So how does it go to what I want to get across and there's just – we learn from great players in the past and great teams in the past."
Message received, lesson learned, and improvements made. In the end, that's the goal for the head coach – and head educator – Nick Sirianni.