Where They Stop, Nobody Knows

Sheil Kapadia describes the latest movement in Linebacker Musical Chairs™. At least Ryans is back as a three-down player again:

When Juan Castillo asked for the first-team nickel defense, Chaney was the man called on to go in alongside DeMeco Ryans. Up until today, Brian Rolle had been occupying that spot at Lehigh. And in the spring, it was rookie Mychal Kendricks.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Chaney said, when I asked him if he expected to be part of that package for the next few days. “I just do what they tell me to do. Whether I’m out there with the twos or the ones, I just go out there and do my best. My job is just to make the decision hard on them.”

(Note that I resisted excerpting just the first part of Chaney’s quote.)

On Mike Caldwell's Culpability

Sorry, Les, but this just isn’t true:

From Caldwell’s perspective, obviously, you’re a position coach, you don’t pick the players. You didn’t tell anybody the Eagles would be just fine with fourth-round rookie Casey Matthews opening last season in the middle. Your job is to do the best you can with what they give you.

Of course the buck stops up the line with Juan Castillo, Andy Reid, and Howie Roseman. But you don’t go into the season with just a fourth-round pick as your starting middle linebacker unless the position coach either thinks it can work or shuts his mouth and nods whenever a higher-up tells him what’s what. In either case he is at least partially responsible for the resulting disaster.

After all the time spent discussing the sway that guys like Jim Washburn, Howard Mudd, and Ted Williams have on evaluating and teaching players, how can we wipe away any culpability that Caldwell has when his unit fails so miserably?

You Gotta Believe

Everyone lapped up the “I’d take a bullet for Andy” quote, but to me, this one from Juan Castillo is more ridiculous. Per Jeff McLane:

Asked what he thought was the biggest thing he learned last season, Castillo answered in true form, “That when you work hard, and you believe in something, and you don’t change no matter, that good things do happen.”

Do you believe? Oh please, please believe. If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands and she’ll hear you…

Stroke of Genius

Don Banks:

Every coach’s intelligence level is tied to his team’s win-loss record to some degree, but the wisdom of moving Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator last year in Philadelphia was thought one of the all-time dumb moves — at least during the Eagles’ dismal 4-8 start to its “dream” season. Funny, but the risky manuever got a little smarter looking when Philly finished the year with four consecutive victories to even things out at 8-8.

Castillo will be accorded even smarter status this year, and if the revamped Eagles defense starts quickly, don’t be surprised if the words “stroke of genius” are employed at some point to describe his 2011 promotion.

I try hard to keep the words “Castillo” and “genius” at least three paragraphs apart, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

'I Don't Know What I Did'

Jeff McLane:

Juan Castillo screamed the play dead, strutted to the line of scrimmage, and unleashed a profanity-filled tirade on the Eagles’ first-round draft pick.

Fletcher Cox, welcome to the NFL.

"I don’t know what I did," Cox said later. "But I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ gave him no lip back, and I just kept going."

Must…. Resist… Juan Castillo incompetence joke.

Trouble on the Post-Jason Peters Offensive Line

Jason Peters Injured

Losing Jason Peters for the year, as the Eagles did when he ruptured his achilles last week, is a devastating blow to the team’s hopes in 2012. Peters, if not the best offensive tackle in the league, is certainly in the top five. He’s a nimble mountain on the field, protecting Michael Vick and steamrolling defenders for LeSean McCoy. No matter when it happened, this injury would cause a big step back on offense.

However, despite some reporters’ unconvincing headlines, the Eagles are especially unprepared to deal with Peters’s injury. The team is lucky that there are still free agent options available and that they have a variety of early round picks if they want to go that route. But compared to past years, the Eagles have few players on the roster who can step into Peters’s shoes.

Because Juan Castillo (remember him?) built his lines from the outside-in, the most important tackle spots often had multiple potential replacements. Back in 2006, 2007 the Eagles had three players other than starters Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan prepping to step into their shoes. Todd Herremans and Shawn Andrews, both tackles in college, were starters at guard, and Winston Justice was learning as a backup tackle.  

There was nothing guaranteed about their success, and indeed Andrews flamed out spectacularly after that. But there was no question as to what options were available if and when Thomas/Runyan couldn’t go. Even before Peters’s injury though, the depth at offensive tackle had worn thin. King Dunlap has shown flashes of potential in limited action, but has a meager pedigree and limited expectations. Justice, an adequate starter for two seasons, was shipped off for pennies to Indianapolis.

Moreover, Howard Mudd’s offensive line seems to be assembled in the opposite direction from Castillo’s. Whereas Jamaal Jackson was a huge linemen who would have shifted out to guard at least, Jason Kelce’s sub-300 lb. frame couldn’t play anywhere but center. Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins both played tackle in college, but projected to guards in the NFL (not that you would trust Watkins out there anyway). The team may try one or both on the outside, but neither has the potential to star as a tackle, like Herremans, Andrews, and Justice did.

Building and maintaining a NFL roster is tremendously difficult. At any moment, even in the offseason, an injury can take a position from strength to weakness. That’s why depth is so important, and unfortunately, the Eagles have burned through their tackle depth over the last few years and failed to replace it. In the last three drafts, Howie Roseman drafted just one tackle — Fenuki Tupou, who never took a single regular season snap.

Likely that will change this year, and the Eagles will take at least one early draft pick to compete for Peters’s spot. But depth isn’t necessarily something you can manufacture in a few weeks. With that in mind, it may already be too late to avoid disaster.

Photo from Getty.

Beyond 'I Goofed'

The full transcript of Andy Reid’s interview with McLane and Domo is up, and it has some juicier quotes than just the “goofed” line.

"From a coaching standpoint, we probably gave [Michael Vick] a little too much too soon protection-responsibility wise. You can’t take quite as much as we did early and do that with a guy. Even though he’s been in the league as long as he has, it’s a different (protection) scheme. If I had to go back on it, I would have backed up and just gradually fed him the stuff. You’re talking about a very intelligent guy. Very intelligent. But you can’t dump years and years of things on the table and expect him to go and perform."

That’s the first time, to my knowledge, that Reid has admitted that a lot of the protection/decision issues were on Vick.

"The first thing that happens in this league is, if the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about, the players are going to let you know. They’re gonna be very verbal about that. But everybody stayed on board with Juan Castillo. I thought that was a tribute to him, his coaching ability and his staff."

In trying to tell us, “Hey, at least the players like him better than that McDermott guy,” Reid actually places Castillo in a category of coach that “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Stunning.

Bowles Turned Down Raiders Coordinator Job

Jonathan Tamari:

Bowles, the only new addition to the coaching staff, took the Eagles job over offers to become the defensive coordinator in Oakland, to remain the assistant head coach/secondary coach in Miami, or take the same position in Cincinnati.

Obviously, we’re taking new secondary coach Todd Bowles at his word here, but it’s surprising to say the least. Perhaps Bowles thought that his input would actually have a bigger impact working “under” Juan Castillo rather than defensive-minded Raiders head coach Dennis Allen.

Chalk It Up to Experience

Juan Castillo

It pains me to see that people are still arguing that Juan Castillo deserves to return as defensive coordinator in 2012. I don’t hold out hope of convincing these misguided souls, but I do want to rebuke one point that keeps coming up: the myth of a single year of experience.

I’ve already spoken at length about how the final few games were a mirage, and both Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid have asserted as much (“fool’s gold”). But even if you grant an improvement, and attribute it to Castillo, that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly qualified to hold the job.

Not to bog you down with two days’ worth of analogies, but let’s put this into a non-football context. Let’s say the president is trying to find a new secretary of defense. It’s not the biggest job in the land, but command over our nation’s military is one of the highest-ranking appointed posts.

To fill this void at the Department of Defense, the president taps the undersecretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. This particular fellow has no experience running the military, CIA, or any other major branch of government. He has lots of experience administrating his small department, but aside from some consulting on veteran affairs and a brief stint in the Army nearly 30 years prior, he’s woefully unprepared for the job.

The appointment, widely criticized at the time, goes pretty much as poorly as everyone expected. The strategies he employs bungle major operations, the missions he supports are disasters, and the only success the military has comes from experienced generals who are given independent authority to run their operation. Meanwhile, the secretary’s record is the biggest reason the president is now looking unlikely to be re-elected.

So, after a year of this, we’re wondering whether he should be replaced, and the question becomes: how much improvement do we expect from the secretary in year two of his job? Some folks argue that after a year at the helm, the secretary is actually better than most candidates out there. He made lots of mistakes, but surely now he’ll know what not to do.

I say this is ridiculous, for one reason among many: next year won’t be a rebooted, replayed version of last year’s events. In an ideal world, the secretary now knows how to deal with a certain subset of problems he faced in his first year. But next year not only could bring different challenges, it certainly will. The enemy doesn’t stand still, and the secretary and his team will have to come up with new strategies to face new problems.

Even a veteran of these tough military decisions won’t get the answers right every time. But at least with a decade or two of experience, he or she would be able to call upon knowledge gained on the battlefield or at the elbow of a few respected superiors. The secretary, with his one year on the job, isn’t anywhere close to having that kind of knowledge, so the improvement from year one to year two will be minimal.

Whether it’s secretary of defense or defensive coordinator, we’re not talking about an entry level job where you come in at a deficit of knowledge and quickly “level up” to the point where you can accomplish everything. This is a job that people spend decades preparing for and it’s still incredibly difficult. One bad year at the helm doesn’t vault you ahead.

Photo from Getty.

Castillo, One of Three Defensive 'Head Coaches'

Chris McPherson, for the Eagles website:

Castillo said he was open to the idea of adding Spagnuolo to the defensive staff. Castillo points to Spagnuolo’s resume which includes a Super Bowl trophy from his time as defensive coordinator with the Giants.

"There’s nothing wrong with having three or four head coaches on the defensive staff," Castillo said.

Well, that pretty much says it all right there.

Bowles, Castillo, and a Defensive Coaching Void

Todd Bowles

What do you call a defensive coordinator who isn’t in charge of his defense?

With the new hire of Todd Bowles as secondary coach, I suppose the answer is Juan Castillo.

Surely Andy Reid will tell the press today that he always planned to retain Castillo, but we don’t have to believe him. The Eagles were turned down by Steve Spagnuolo and others before they settled back in for another year of “the offensive line coach?” Castillo, who could already rely on “assistant” Jim Washburn for the defensive line, now has Bowles coaching up the defensive backs.

On the surface, given Castillo’s return, the Bowles move is quite positive. He has a long history in the league and was respected enough by his players that the Dolphins promoted him to interim head coach after Tony Sparano was fired.

But I doubt that Reid lured Bowles to town with anything less than absolute control over the secondary — much like Washburn has over the defensive line. And while that might bring better schemes and technique, it also establishes the second of Castillo’s underlings who actually have more power than he does. Juan’s role is rapidly reducing. Presumably he still has control over Mike Caldwell’s linebackers (for better or worse) and playcalling duties (mostly worse) — but that’s all.

Somehow, two authoritative assitants and one bumbling overseer doesn’t strike me as the formula for a successful defense.

Let me put it a different way. On The Wire, police Major “Bunny” Colvin (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Bowles) uses his complete control over the Western District to establish his own extra-legal, free-drug zones to isolate the gangs in uninhabited areas of Baltimore. It’s a brilliant plan in its own right, and succeeds in cutting down on violence.

But, (spoiler alert) it can’t last. Colvin’s plan is incompatible with the rest of the police force, especially his backwards superiors. Change within a corrupt bureaucratic organization is difficult, and it has to start at the top. You can’t fix problems and spearhead better policies without a cohesive plan pulling it all together.

By removing Castillo further from on-the-ground responsibilities, Reid has addressed the symptom of poor coaching without removing the cause — the lack of an experienced defensive coordinator who can actually take control of the whole defense. Until that changes, I will remain pessimistic about the unit’s future.

Photo from Getty.

Castillo Stays, Todd Bowles in at DBs Coach

Jeff McLane has the scoop:

The Eagles are set to hire former Miami interim head coach Todd Bowles to be their defensive backs coach in charge of cornerbacks and Juan Castillo will remain defensive coorindator an NFL source told The Inquirer on Monday.

Well, if they weren’t going to fire Juan Castillo, and they weren’t going to hire Steve Spagnuolo to oversee the defense… I suppose this is about the best you can expect.

Bowles has been a defensive backs coach in the NFL for the last 12 years. He became the Dolphins’ interim head coach after Tony Sparano was fired in December.

The Mess of Pro Bowl Cornerbacks

Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

It’s quite a feat to turn a strength into a weakness. That’s what Juan Castillo and Johnnie Lynn managed to do to the Eagles’ elite trio of cornerbacks.

Coming into the season, the three Pro Bowlers were supposed to be an asset that covered up the Eagles inexperience at safety and linebacker. Instead, we were frequently left to wonder if the coaches had any plan to use them effectively at all. The biggest problem was that through most of the season no one figured out how to play Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie all in the same lineup.

After they decided not to trade Samuel, the Eagles assumed that Rodgers-Cromartie could man the slot, a position he was uncomfortable with from the start. In yet another example of poor self-scouting, that turned out to be an awful idea.

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus, here are Asomugha’s and Rodgers-Cromartie’s stats at the two positions (Samuel played almost exclusively outside):

Nnamdi Asomugha Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Starting with Asomugha, it’s worth noting that by these metrics he was stellar. Among cornerbacks with at least 25 percent of snaps, Nnamdi ranked first overall in coverage snaps per target, sixth in yards per snap, and second in snaps per reception. Each figure was down from 2010, as he was targeted more often, but they were all still elite.

Regardless, Asomugha provided similar performance no matter where he lined up. He had slightly more targets in the slot, but didn’t allow anything big.

Contrast that with Rodgers-Cromartie, who posted a massive split playing in two different positions. Out of the 44 corners last year with 25 percent or more slot snaps, he ranked 39th in snaps per target, 44th in yards per snap, and 41st in snaps per reception. That is awful. He was arguably the worst slot corner in the NFL.

Put Rodgers-Cromartie outside, and everything changes. In fact, DRC’s numbers on the outside were even better than Asomugha’s. As bad as he was on the inside, Rodgers-Cromartie was one of the best corners in the league when he was playing at his natural position.

Toward the end of the season Rodgers-Cromartie began to get more snaps outside. Partially that was to replace an injured Samuel, but even before that Asomugha would often play the slot in nickel and dime. Clearly, that was a much better defensive formation than what they had going on earlier — and that it took so long to implement is another black mark against Castillo.

Looking forward, I expect Samuel to be traded, freeing up space for DRC to play outside all the time. While Asante is still a great cornerback, playing to everyone’s strengths will be easier next year. The cornerbacks might actually be the fool-proof strength we all expected six months ago.

Photo from Getty.

Steve Spagnuolo and a Franchise on the Decline

Steve Spagnuolo

Just a few weeks ago, Jeffrey Lurie stood behind the podium and argued that retaining Andy Reid representedthe best chance for the Eagles to win a Super Bowl next season. But as Steve Spagnuolo, the odds-on favorite to replace Juan Castillo, chose New Orleans instead, that wisdom comes into doubt.

Regardless of playoff results, Lurie was right when he said that the true class of the NFC is represented by the Packers and Saints. Everyone else is playing catch up. And on a day when the best defensive coordinator on the market picked the Saints instead of the Eagles, Reid’s team looks like it’s only losing ground.

Let’s be clear. Regardless of the length or seriousness of the talks between him and the Eagles front office, Spagnuolo knew what he’d be getting into in Philadelphia. He knows Reid, the front office, the situation on defense, probably better than he did the Saints job or any other. The fact that he avoided returning to Philly doesn’t bode well for the Eagles organizational health.

I would say that Spagnuolo’s preference to stay away represents a certain canary-in-the-coal-mine warning, but we already had that last year when the Reid fell back to Juan “Plan H” Castillo. The head coach has had success luring older, mercenary-type assistants to the staff in the last two years. Bobby April, Jim Washburn, Howard Mudd have all had positive impacts on the team. But Reid has now struck out twice (three times if you count McDermott) in trying to bring an experienced veteran in to run the defense.

Lets go back to the Packers and Saints for a moment and their two great offensive-minded head coaches in Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton, not unlike Andy Reid. Both have utilized “defensive head coaches” to win a Super Bowl — Dom Capers and Gregg Williams. Now Steve Spagnuolo will slide into the spot in New Orleans vacated by Williams.

The Eagles used to have a defensive head coach in Jim Johnson. Reid knew his limitations and almost won a Super Bowl with Johnson dialing up blitzes independently from his oversight. Payton and McCarthy have stolen from that playbook, but Reid’s original copy is gathering dust in a closet somewhere.

When Reid announces next week that his first choice at defensive coordinator was always bringing back Castillo, not only will he be lying, but it will be an example of how far he’s fallen from the realm of elite NFL coaches, as well as the latest indictment of an organization stuck in neutral.

Perhaps next season will provide a rebound playoff year, and both Reid and Howie Roseman will refurbish their reputations. But sitting here right now, it’s tough to be anything but pessimistic about the future of this franchise.

Photo from Getty.