No excuses this season for Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo

Posted: July 18, 2012

Juan Castillo is proud of his film room.

During the offseason, the Eagles defensive coordinator completed the project of having pictures of his players in action pasted on the walls. There's one of Trent Cole knocking the stuffing out of a quarterback, another of Nnamdi Asomugha breaking up a pass, and another of Nate Allen dragging down a ballcarrier.

There are several others, with each one placed near the eye level of those sitting in the theater-style setting. The purpose, Castillo explained, was not purely motivational.

"You're young. You're in a classroom. Your mind drifts, and what do you do?" Castillo rhetorically asked a reporter. "Your head dips and you start looking down. I want their eyes up looking at me."

The photos are sorted by position and placed strategically where each group sits. The players will look at the pictures, according to Castillo, because (1) What athlete won't look at an enlarged photo of himself? and (2) The players who aren't on that wall will try to picture their images up there one day.

It sounded trite and perhaps a bit sophomoric, but Castillo was making the hard sell. It was May when Castillo grabbed a reporter in one of the hallways at the NovaCare Complex and invited him into his lair to show off the mural.

He sat the reporter down in the front row, enthusiastically pitched his idea, and did so this close to his face. Whether or not you are buying what he's selling, it's difficult not to be inspired by Castillo's passion.

"This is a game of emotion. No matter how you cut it, it's a game of emotion," Eagles coach Andy Reid said last month. "And you've got to be tough mentally through the dog days of it, those long, grinding days of practice. You want a little relief in there. You need some humor. You need some motivation, just a little kick. So Juan presents that to the guys.

"He puts them in an environment where you're looking around and you're going, 'We're going to dominate.' He gives you that feeling."

More communal

This is not a story about why the 52-year-old Castillo will be a good coordinator this season, though he may end up being just that. It's fair to say he wasn't a good one last season. The Eagles defense did not dominate - not by a long shot. But it did improve, and, perhaps most important, it still believed in Castillo by season's end.

The four-game winning streak contributed to Reid's bringing back his loyal aide for a second season. An overture was made to Steve Spagnuolo, one that essentially would have eliminated Castillo. But Spagnuolo declined, and Reid eventually hired defensive backs coach Todd Bowles to assist Castillo.

With Jim Washburn governing the defensive line and the veteran Bowles in charge of the back four, it may seem as if Castillo's influence has waned. It's still his defense, however. He still runs the meetings, will still devise the game plan and still make the play calls.

But it likely will be a more communal enterprise, unlike the early version of last season's defense, when Castillo was implementing a complicated zone scheme behind Washburn's wide-nine front.

"In the beginning of the year, we didn't know each other, and it was kind of like when you don't know someone and you're the one in charge, I don't know if it's going to be very easy to trust," Asomugha said.

According to the cornerback, the late season turnaround had as much to do with Castillo's listening to his players as anything.

"I know myself and Asante [Samuel], we had played defense at a high level for many years, and Juan at a point just really started to listen and just be open with players," Asomugha said. "And I get why in the beginning it might not necessarily have been that way, because you don't know. You want to put your thing up there."

Fiercely loyal

Castillo and his defense's struggles through a 4-8 start have been well documented: five blown fourth-quarter leads, linebackers and safeties unable to fill wide running lanes, a leaky secondary despite a strong pass rush.

Even during the low points, nary a word questioning the decision to promote Castillo emanated from the locker room. Players had begun to privately gripe about Castillo's predecessor, Sean McDermott, not long into his first season. After two seasons, McDermott had lost some of the locker room, and Reid decided to let him go.

Castillo's players, as far as it can be determined, remained fiercely loyal.

"The thing with Juan is he definitely will not sell anybody out or [send] them down the river or anything," Asomugha said. "He's very loyal to his players, loves his guys. I think that's something I respect and all the other players respect."

The players also respected Castillo for owning up to his mistakes, Reid said.

"He's real. So if he goofs, he's going to tell you, 'That was a bad call on my part. I appreciate you as a player saving me on that play,' " Reid said. "On the other hand, if the player goofs, they're going to come back and do the same thing if you present it that way."

Kurt Coleman recalled the Arizona game, when he could not make a goal-line tackle on the Cardinals' winning touchdown.

"We had gone over the play several times in practice, and I had the tackle, and I missed it," Coleman said. "That was clearly on me. . . . If it's on me, it's on me, and I think that's how Juan is. If he makes a bad call or he's doing something wrong, he's going to let us know that."

Trying too hard

It's not without reason to remain skeptical of Castillo's credentials as a coordinator. Just because the players like him doesn't mean he can get the job done. Many coaches have thrived in spite of their prickliness.

Last training camp, Castillo ran around like a mad man, one time head-butting linebacker Keenan Clayton. He was overheard telling an off-color joke to a couple of his linemen. It seemed as if the former offensive line coach was trying too hard to get his defensive players to accept him.

"Juan, he's got the energy thing," Asomugha said. "But the energy thing . . . Coaches have energy, but we've still got to get on the field regardless of how many cartwheels and back flips the coach is doing."

By the final four games, however, there was a shift. Those final four games, of course, meant very little to the Eagles and to their opponents. And the four opposing quarterbacks - Miami's Matt Moore, the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, Dallas' Stephen McGee, and Washington's Rex Grossman - weren't exactly great competition.

But the Eagles dominated those offenses. The numbers back it up: In the first 12 games, the Eagles defense allowed 344.8 yards per game, 23.5 points per game and 23 passing touchdowns while forcing only 16 turnovers. In the final four games, they held their foes to 265 yards a game, 11.5 points per game, and five passing TDs, and forced eight turnovers.

With an injured Samuel sidelined for the final two games, Castillo was able to work with this season's cornerback tandem of Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Samuel was traded to Atlanta in April, taking his off-style of play with him and likely allowing Castillo to press his corners more and play more man-to-man this season.

Reid also supplied his coordinator with DeMeco Ryans, a genuine middle linebacker who will be Castillo's mouthpiece on the field. Castillo also has had a full offseason to work with his unit, something he did not have the luxury of last year.

The pieces are there. There aren't any excuses. If he can't get it done this season, the Eagles may have to tear down the walls and start over again. And Castillo and his motivational pictures - perhaps along with Reid - could be part of the rubble.

"I get it, man," Castillo said. "But last year's gone. It's about this year. It's about us getting off to a good start, and starting where we left off last year."


Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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