Quite a bit has changed for me during my 18 month hiatus: new woman, new place, new puppy that chews everything in sight. The sports scene has undergone a similar dramatic overhaul over that span on both the local and national levels. Tiger Woods went from hero to pariah to average golfer; Lebron James had a similar hero-to-villain status shift, and Brett Favre is no longer the best QB to wear a Packers uniform (has there ever been a legendary player eclipsed on his own franchise so quickly??). Locally, the Phillies followed up their World Series title by joining the Yankees and Red Sox as the biggest spenders in baseball, the Flyers remade their entire franchise in one day with the bombshell trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and the Sixers have been infused with young talent, new ownership, and the positive force of nature that is head coach Doug Collins.
The one thing that has remained the same, to the chagrin of most Philadelphia sports fans, is the tenure of Andy Reid as head coach of this town’s beloved Eagles. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is scheduled to speak to the media today at 2:00 (view live here) and, unless he decides to surprise us all, will most likely announce the return of Reid for a 14th season. After Sunday’s finale, the players seemed supremely confident that Reid would be returning, and Reid was his typical snarky self as he disregarded questioners that had the nerve to ask about anything other than the meaningless football game that had just concluded. And why wouldn’t he be? His team has won FOUR STRAIGHT games to avoid a losing record with a sparkling 8-8 record (You may be able to actually HEAR my eyes rolling).
Barring the aforementioned shocker, Reid’s job appears to be safe for at least one more year. So I won’t bother going into grand detail about whether Big Red will be back. I thought he should’ve been fired in 2009, when a string of victories over terrible opponents earned him a contract extension despite not playing a single competitive game against a team with a winning record, including two consecutive season ending blowouts to the despised Cowboys. The Eagles, however, will cling to the image of their franchise as a model of stability- like the Steelers whose stability has actually resulted in championships, or the Colts, who just fired longtime Hall of Fame caliber executive Bill Polian, or the Bears, who just did the same with longtime GM Jerry Angelos. Oh wait…apparently, not producing results and having underacheiving seasons has consequences in other NFL cities, despite previous success. Didn’t I say I wasn’t going to talk about this?
If Reid returns, after the initial round of wailing dies down, the focus will shift to the second most important decision that will be made by the Eagles this offseason: who will be the defensive coordinator in 2012? The defense is the easiest target for the Birds’ disappointing season – they blew FOUR 4th quarter leads at HOME, ranked 30th in red zone defense, and got their doors blown off by the Patriots (reasonable) and the Seahawks(ridiculous). Not exactly a resume builder for first year coordinator Juan Castillo. All of this while the offense piled up a franchise record in yards (and seemingly, turnovers).
But what did we really expect? You mean it’s not a good idea to hire an NFL offensive line coach for his first coordinator position on the OTHER side of the ball? You mean to tell me that if we then hand a guy whose never coached an NFL defense several new starters, including (count ’em) SEVEN players in the back 7 that are in their first or second years, that we shouldn’t expect immediate success? Even with a lockout shortened offseason? You mean to tell me that if we then install a completely different defensive line technique in front of all those inexperienced linebackers and safeties, that we shouldn’t expect mistakes and blown coverages?? As they say on ESPN – Come on, man!!!
The decision to hire Castillo (by REID!!) can surely be questioned, especially on a team that was built to contend for a Super Bowl this year. The outrage over hiring someone with so little experience, and putting them under the circumstances listed above is well deserved and appropriate. However, the fact that Castillo was initially overmatched (and he was) is not his fault, and so the vitriol directed his way earlier this season should be put aside when considering his potential return. The final numbers say that the Eagles finished 10th in the NFL in scoring defense at 20.5 points a game; just a tad over former DC Jim Johnson’s target of 17 or less. The defensive tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 50, and the lion share of them were produced by the front four, including a combined 29 from Trent Cole and Jason Babin. Sure, the schedule down the stretch included quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez, Matt Moore, and Stephen McGee; but the Birds had previously been torched by the likes of Tavaris Jackson, John Skelton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They also continued to have Eli Manning’s number in a game that almost ruined Eli’s fantastic season (wow did I hate typing that).
The point is that the defense showed marked improvement over the second half of the season; Castillo even began installing wrinkles, like having several defensive linemen standing and moving presnap to confuse opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines. I just don’t believe that ANOTHER change will be in the best interest of a young defense that took a half a season to learn a new defense and line technique. Sure, Steve Spagnuolo is available after being fired by the Rams, and has a history here, as well as a successful stint as DC in New York on his resume. But bringing in Spagnuolo would mean overhauling the defensive style in consecutive years. Not to mention that, while the Eagles may have the corners to play his aggressive, blitzing style, do they have the playmaking linebackers and safeties that a Jim Johnson inspired defense also loves to send after the QB? And if a new DC comes in, what happens to Jim Washburn and his wide nine? He will likely be let go in favor of a coach whose system is more in line with the new coordinator. And if that happens, will Jason Babin be as effective as he has been in the last two years under Washburn? He may not be the staunchest run defender, but in today’s NFL there is a premium on rushing the passer, and Babin can certainly do that.
Next year, if the Eagles underachieve and fall short of contending seriously for a title again, I honestly believe Reid will be gone finally – will a new DC want to sign on, knowing that his job will be on tenuous ground from Day 1? You let Reid make this bed – if you’re going to let him lie in it one more year, you might as well practice what you preach: stability. Bring back Castillo and let this defense have a full offseason learning and improving on the SAME system, as well as infuse some talent in the back 7. Who should be choosing those new players? That’s a whole other question.