Sam Donnellon: Castillo deserves credit for Eagles defense's turnaround

Posted: September 21, 2012

WE DON'T move off first impressions easily in this town.

Some who thought Charlie Manuel was a dimwitted hire when the Phillies' core was just a bunch of unproven kids are, seven seasons and five postseason appearances later, holding fast to the ridiculous argument that he has done too little with the "talent" of this season's aging and injury-ravaged team.

Some who thought putting a C on the sweater of Mike Richards at age 23 would only increase his capabilities would still argue that trading him, and soulmate Jeff Carter, was akin to swapping Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. It wasn't.

Really, our first impressions are often wrong. Some thought Donovan McNabb was the wrong draft pick, some saw Terrell Owens as the final piece to multiple championships. Was it only two autumns ago that Kevin Kolb's rise to the level of elite quarterback was a matter of seasoning, not supposition?

Which brings me to Juan Castillo, Season 2. When the Eagles' defense looked like an Abbott and Costello movie at this juncture last season, Castillo was the roast of town. He was overmatched, his schemes too confusing, many of us - including me - said. The high-priced talent traded for or signed to upgrade the group that got Sean McDermitt fired - Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins - looked like confused and tentative rookies out there.

And the rookies out there?

Egads!

And now that his defense looks like a Mercedes-Benz? Well it's because of that new secondary coach, Todd Bowles, of course.

Because our first impression couldn't have been wrong.

Right?

It is not unlike the credit heaped upon bench coach Jimy Williams after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. It wasn't that Brad Lidge was perfect in the ninth and Ryan Madson was nearly perfect in the eighth or that a slew of other well-traveled names were coming up big. Jimy was managing this team, not Charlie.

In much the same manner, that's a popular theory about the defense's impressive start. It's not that Castillo had OTAs this time around, or a full summer or preseason. It's not that they added some big pieces through trades and the draft, or even that Castillo had them playing far more intelligently by season's end.

Two weeks into the season, Castillo's defense is near the top in virtually every important category. More significantly to me is what your eyes have told you, that this defense is much more resolved when it comes to the game-deciding plays, and much more cohesive.

"Coaches are putting us in a lot of positions to make plays now," Nate Allen, the third-year safety, said the other day. "It is an exciting thing to be part of."

A year ago, Allen began the season coming off the bench, still favoring a surgically repaired knee. Now he's part of a secondary that has accentuated, not diminished, the Eagles' deep and intimidating defensive line.

Allen had 10 tackles against the Ravens Sunday, knocked down a pass, was integral in limiting Joe Flacco's passing and holding Ray Rice to 21 second-half yards after he gashed the Eagles for some big early runs.

"We have chemistry back there now," Allen said. "We feed off each other."

No doubt, Bowles has been one of the chemists. It's early, but Asomugha and DRC have performed like the players they were signed to be before last season. Allen and Kurt Coleman have played at a high level. Jim Washburn has the defensive line behaving as if each play were the game's last. And the upgrades at linebacker have, for the first time in years, at least suggested a group more representative of the town's smash-mouthed reputation.

But give the maestro some love. If Castillo orchestrated last season's garbage-can-clanging start, he deserves some love for what we've seen so far - a defense that, rather than losing games in the fourth quarter, has won them with big, timely plays.

"All of training camp, we talked about wanting to start the way we finished last year," Castillo said Thursday. "We talk about practice. We talked about that today. We talked about practicing harder and faster than anybody in the NFL. What it is, it's a rehearsal for Sunday . . . So Sunday becomes natural."

"He's definitely got a good hold on everything," Allen said. "He's confident in what he's doing and we're confident in what he's doing. We kind of know what the defense is trying to get done. Everybody's gelling. We already have that chemistry. Everyone feels comfortable."

Not everyone. First impressions are hard to shake anywhere. Here, even more so. Still, if it still looks like this in October, even his most stubborn critics might have to rethink their position.

"I'm happy for him," Allen said. "He deserves this. He works so hard, day in and day out."

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon. For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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