By Jonathan Tamari
I remember seeing the tweet come across: Eagles name Juan Castillo defensive coordinator. My first thought was that someone had hacked my coworker’s Twitter account. The next reaction from me and most of Philadelphia was that Andy Reid had better be right.
When Reid decided last year that his long-time offensive line coach was the best man to lead a rebuilt defense, he staked his team’s fate and his own future on a wild risk that seemed like a double-reverse on third-and-one: a bit too clever.
No one outside of Reid and Castillo really thought it would work. Twenty months later, the consensus has proven correct and Reid was terribly wrong. Reid fired his old friend Tuesday. He had seen enough after just 22 games with Castillo on the job.
For a coach who prides himself on his steady demeanor, the move carried the stink of desperation. Reid hopes it will be a turning point that helps him save a season that began with immense expectations and, not incidentally, his job. If not, it will be the telling instant when you knew Reid had run out of ideas and was on an irreversible slide out the city where he has coached for 14 years.
Reid has had the rare opportunity in Philadelphia to build a contender, tear it down and rebuild the team anew. He has an unusually loyal owner and absolute power over football decisions. He shaped a big-play offense, pass-rushing defense, coaching staff and roster that fit his vision. He chose Donovan McNabb, then Kevin Kolb, then Michael Vick to lead his team and try to win the Super Bowl that has eluded him despite many strong years.
But the Castillo move was so crucial and so predictably flawed that it has jeopardized Reid’s chance to extend his run in Philly. It was one of two stunning, franchise-changing decisions that will define his second act in Philly -- the so far mediocre post-McNabb era. His other big choice -- hitching his fortunes to Vick -- is also trending badly, and Reid left open the possibility Tuesday that he may have to reverse course there as well. When an executive makes two calls that important, and that risky, and misses on both, it’s hard to see how he can survive.
Reid is a smart coach; he knows this. So after two blown fourth-quarter leads put a sour feel on a 3-3 start, he is reaching for something, anything to guide his ship away from the icebergs, even if that means firing a loyal assistant who over the summer said he would take a bullet for Reid.
For Castillo, who had worked his way up from playing special teams in the USFL and coaching high school defense to a job in the NFL, hard work and loyalty mean everything. His big Philly story goes like this: When Castillo found out Reid was going to be hired as head coach in 1999, Castillo drove through a snowstorm to Green Bay to wait outside of the new boss’ offices and plead for a job on the staff. Reid kept Castillo on as offensive line coach, and the former linebacker devoted himself to shaping one of the building blocks of Reid’s glory years in Philadelphia.
So when Reid asked him to become the Eagles’ defensive coordinator after more than 20 years teaching offense, Castillo agreed, never mind that his last experience on D was at a Texas high school in 1989. (Apropos of his maniacal work ethic, the interview was at 4 a.m.) Castillo said this was what he always really wanted.
But, despite his dedication, the early results were predictable to everyone, it seems, except Reid. In the first nine games last season, the Eagles blew five fourth-quarter leads, putting them in a hole they could never climb out of. They gave up killer first downs on third-and-long, surrendered big runs at the worst time and once got beat when their lead-footed rookie safety, Jaiquawn Jarrett, ended up covering Larry Fitzgerald, and got burned. It all left the searing impression that Castillo was being outmaneuvered.
Reid, the man who always talks about putting his players in better positions, had put his good friend in an impossible position. (Compounding Castillo’s inexperience was the fact that Reid had handed control of the front four to defensive line coach Jim Washburn, leaving Castillo responsible for the totality of the results on defense, but only seven of the 11 men on the field; this arrangement, many believe, is a big reason Reid had to choose Castillo -- no qualified coordinator would want to work under such circumstances.)
“That’s not Juan’s fault that he was put in that position too early,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told the Philadelphia Daily News on Tuesday. He added that Castillo had “done nothing but work really hard.”
No matter. Fans and media, skeptical from the start, pounced on Castillo. The Eagles had entered the 2011 season full or promise and pressure -- they had rampaged through free agency with a string of big-name signings -- and were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders. Instead, the defense’s fourth-quarter bumbling cost the team any real shot at the playoffs before it got to Thanksgiving.
This year, Reid got a do-over with another star-studded roster, but Lurie called last year’s 8-8 finish “unacceptable” and made clear that with a repeat, he’d be looking for a new coach for the first time since 1999.
So far, if my math is right, the Eagles’ record puts them on track for exactly the same disappointing .500 finish as a year ago. It hasn’t exactly been the defense’s fault -- they rank 13th in points allowed, while the Philly offense is an awful 31st in scoring, thanks to a never-ending grab bag of turnovers.
But in the past two weeks the defense’s old fourth-quarter problems returned, costing the Eagles two games and shifting the narrative in Philadelphia after a 3-1 start. Reid said Tuesday he “started seeing some trends come back that I wasn’t real happy about.”
“I think we all know how much I care about Juan Castillo as a person and as a football coach,” he said. “However, I also have always said that I’m going to do what I think is best for the Philadelphia Eagles, and, at this time, I think this move is the best.”
Of course, there are other trends that should really worry Reid. For one, there is his trend of swinging big and missing on critical decisions (see: Kolb, Castillo and, quite possibly, Vick). For another, there is the trend of three straight seasons without a playoff win and four out of five with no postseason victories. (In his first six years in Philly, Reid won seven playoff games, culminating in a run to the Super Bowl. It seemed like a championship was only a matter of time.)
But the biggest trend Reid should be concerned with is change in Philadelphia.
The Eagles have long prided themselves on being one of the most stable organizations in the NFL. But this offseason has been one of transformation. Lurie’s childhood friend, Joe Banner, the owner’s consigliore since he bought the team, left -- by his own accord he said, though most think Reid gave him a hand out the door. If Banner can go, anyone can.
Reid knows that, so he made one more bold decision.
Maybe it works. Castillo’s replacement, Todd Bowles, has a long history of coaching defense and has the locker room’s respect. While the mood in Philadelphia is grim, the Eagles are only a game behind the Giants, who they have already beaten. As the Eagles will tell you again and again, they have a ton of talent (though they are example No. 1 of why that’s not necessarily the same thing as being a good team).
Reid has 10 games to finally get the most from the roster he shaped. His teams have a history of getting stronger as the season wears on.
But sitting here today, looking at how Reid’s other big recent decisions have turned out, this move has the feel of the end of “Goodfellas”: Reid came close to the top, but believed he could try any plan, no matter how fraught with problems, and it would work out. In putting his faith in Castillo and Vick, it sure looks like Reid has tried juggling too many high-risk schemes at once, and is now flailing for survival as the success he built crumbles under the weight of his mistakes.
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Jonathan Tamari is a former Eagles beat writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently the Inquirer's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTamari.