Paul Domowitch: Castillo shouldn't be left to twist in the wind

Eagles president Joe Banner listens to Jeff Lurie's news conference yesterday.
Eagles president Joe Banner listens to Jeff Lurie's news conference yesterday. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 04, 2012

JEFF LURIE didn't look very angry yesterday, but he assured everyone that underneath that calm, Main Line-rich exterior beat the heart of one monumentally pissed-off NFL owner.

"I have to tell you that nobody will lead this team or owner in anger or frustration, because that's where it's coming from," he said during a 33-minute news conference to explain how angry and frustrated he was about his team's disappointing 8-8 season.

He used versions of the words "anger" and "disappointment" nine different times. Trotted out "frustrating" and "excuses" six times, "unacceptable" and "bitter" twice, and "accountable," "dismal," "ludicrous," "unfathomable" and "terrible" once apiece.

While he wasn't angry or disappointed or frustrated enough to fire head coach Andy Reid, the jury still is out on the Eagles' embattled defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo.

"That's up to Andy," Lurie said. "We've had long discussions about player personnel, staff and everything. But that's Andy's area and he will make the best judgment of that. He'll be addressing you [media] guys soon on that, and I have full confidence he'll make the right decisions there."

Castillo, whose curious promotion last February from offensive-line coach to defensive coordinator raised eyebrows all over the league, appeared to be a dead coach walking in early December after the Eagles gave up 69 points in back-to-back losses to New England and Seattle and fell to 4-8.

Too little too late, they rallied to win their last four games, as Castillo's defense gave up a total of 46 points, albeit to a motley collection of offenses quarterbacked by Matt Moore, Mark Sanchez, Stephen McGee and Rex Grossman.

Many, including myself, thought the defense's late-season improvement might be enough to save Castillo's job. But after listening to Lurie yesterday, I'm not so sure.

While he acknowledged he was happy to see his team rally in December and string together four season-ending wins, he said the caliber of the competition can't be ignored.

"In reality, we weren't playing Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and some of the best teams in the league," Lurie said. "We proved we could dominate the last four games of the year against teams that weren't that competitive.

"There's a lot to be said for players coming together, and the [way the] coaching staff held this group together was impressive. But to hold on to that as a reason to be completely optimistic is, I think, fool's gold."

I'm not sure there ever is a good year to promote a career offensive line coach to defensive coordinator. But with the 4 1/2-month lockout, a set-in-his-ways defensive-line coach, inexperienced linebacker and safety coaches, and an influx of new players who didn't join the team until training camp and had to learn his system on the run, this was a particularly bad one.

Reid insisted to me in August that Castillo was his first choice from the moment he fired Sean McDermott 3 days after the end of the 2010 season. I knew he was lying to me then. Lurie confirmed it yesterday. Acknowledged that Reid promoted Castillo after things didn't work out with several other candidates.

"What Andy did was he made a list of all the top people he was looking at to replace Sean as defensive coordinator," he said. "Things happen, circumstances happen, changes don't happen on other teams, certain coaches aren't available. And he became very interested in Juan, because he knew what he could accomplish. Whether he could accomplish it fast enough is an interesting question. And he didn't. The whole team didn't, in terms of the first half of the season.

"With Juan, I would just say anyone who has known this man for 17 to 18 years, as we all have, [he's an] incredibly impressive man. Incredible family man and incredible coach. Was he put into a situation where he couldn't succeed early in the season? That's for us all to have answers to. It was a difficult process."

The answer to that question is yes. Castillo spent much of the season trying to implement coverage schemes that looked good on paper, but didn't really fit his personnel or were too complicated to master in a postlockout time frame. His linebackers struggled to learn their gap responsibilities behind defensive-line coach Jim Washburn's wide-nine.

"I think maybe there was a miscalculation in implementing big scheme changes in a lockout situation," Lurie said. "I would've thought we would've been able to, during an abbreviated training camp and preseason, adapt to some of those schematic changes. They were bold changes. But clearly, the team was not gelling and maximizing those scheme changes in the first half of the year.

"I would hold everybody accountable that's responsible for the scheme changes. There's a payoff once it takes effect and you gel and have it. We saw tremendous benefits in the offensive and defensive lines as the season went on. And we will benefit from that as we go forward. But the first half of the season, it's ridiculously unacceptable to have third-quarter and fourth-quarter leads and blow all those games. If we just blew one less game, we'd be playing Atlanta next week."

If Reid had hired an experienced defensive coordinator last January, chances are, they would have blown one fewer game, at least. But he didn't.

"I don't look at this as a gamble," Reid told me in August of the Castillo promotion. "I look at it as an opportunity for him. Coaches are probably a little more interchangeable than what people might think."

Maybe, maybe not. The truth is, Reid set up Castillo to fail last February. Put him in a situation he never should've been placed in. Now he has to figure out what to do.

Should he stick with him and gamble that he'll do a much better job in Year 2 than he did in Year 1? Or should he do what he should have done last year and bring in someone else with more defensive experience?

With several NFL coaching staffs getting pink slips this week, there suddenly are some attractive candidates out there, not the least of whom is former Reid assistant Steve Spagnuolo, who was canned by the Rams on Monday. If Reid can persuade Spagnuolo to rejoin his staff, he needs to do it.

Castillo is one of the best people I've met in the 30 years I've covered the NFL. While I think the Eagles need to hire a new defensive coordinator, I also think it would be unconscionable for Reid to replace Castillo without providing him with a landing spot.

You want to promote him to assistant head coach in charge of desks and chairs until Howard Mudd decides to head back into retirement, fine. You want to call one of your coaching pals and find him a new job, as you did with McDermott last year, fine, too.

But if you're going to make the man the scapegoat for your disappointing season, you damn well had better take care of him.

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