Eagles gamble on familiar face

July 15, 2011

There are at least three NFL franchises enacting dramatic scheme changes on defense in 2011, including the much-ballyhooed attempt by Houston head coach Gary Kubiak to save his job by bringing in Wade Phillips to convert the Texans to a 3-4 front, a makeover that will require considerable personnel maneuvering.

Yet, it is a guy who is hardly new to a team, but will switch the side of the ball on which he has worked his entire NFL career, who might actually face the biggest challenge of any assistant coach this year.

Not since he tutored linemen and linebackers at Kingsville (Texas) High School from 1986 to 1989 has Juan Castillo worked on the defensive side. Still, it is Castillo, the Philadelphia offensive line coach the past 13 seasons and an offensive assistant in all 16 previous years with the club, who has been tabbed by head coach Andy Reid and charged with the daunting responsibility of upgrading the Eagles' defense for 2011. Castillo, 51, has long been one of the league's best offensive-line coaches, a guy who did his job quietly and without the requisite fanfare, but who was often identified by this columnist as an excellent, if underrated, mentor.

But when Castillo was promoted to defensive coordinator by Reid in early February, after the club discussed the opening with a number of coaches more experienced at directing an NFL defense, the move was regarded by many as a bit of a shock. To some, perhaps, even a reach. The pressure to upgrade a unit that, even with its perceived problems had finished 12th in the NFL in both its seasons under deposed coordinator Sean McDermott, began almost immediately.

Reid has cited Castillo's "toughness, desire and work ethic," in explaining the move. The Eagles' head coach, the longest-tenured sideline boss in the league in terms of continuous service with the same franchise, has noted that Philadelphia defensive bosses in the past, including the late and legendary Jim Johnson, often huddled with Castillo about the soundness of some of their blitz packages. Castillo has even described himself as "a defensive guy who's been on the offensive side."

Said Castillo after being named to the job: "I would say (to Reid), 'C'mon, coach, when are you going to move me over (to defense)?' "

Now the move, as stunning as it was to some national observers and to the Eagles' always throaty, fan-base, has come. And with it arrives the pressure inherent to the job of improving a defense that, while still ranking statistically in the top half of the NFL, wasn't quite good enough to carry the club beyond the first round of the playoffs. The unit is also expected, especially by the vocals masses at Lincoln Financial Field, to complement a high-octane offense that's anticipated to be one of the most explosive in the league.

In admittedly casual conversations with coaches, general managers and scouts over the past few weeks, The Sports Xchange asked NFL executives to identify a few assistants who might have increased focus on them once the long lockout ends and camps begin. Many of them cited first-year offensive coordinators for clubs that have rookie quarterbacks expected to immediately start in 2011: Jay Gruden (Cincinnati), Bill Musgrave (Minnesota) and Chris Palmer (Tennessee).

A few noted that first-year Carolina offensive chief Rob Chudzinski inherits the task of getting overall top pick Cam Newton ready to play as quickly as possible. How about Washington holdover coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose head coach/father has all but anointed little-used Jon Beck, with four career starts and zero appearances since 2007, as the leader of the Redskins' quarterback depth chart?

Atlanta veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who could lose three of his five starters in free agency, was frequently named.

Others named defensive coordinators such as Phillips, Dick Jauron (Cleveland) and Dennis Allen (Denver), all of whom will switch the base schemes of their new teams. The name of Miami running backs coach Jeff Nixon, who figures to lose his top two tailbacks, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, in free agency, was raised. A pair of former Pittsburgh stars who will be first-time secondary coaches for their teams, Hall of Famer Rod Woodson (Oakland) and standout Carnell Lake (Steelers), were mentioned.

Tennessee first-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who replaces longtime Titans aide Jim Washburn (who, ironically, moved to the Eagles) in that capacity, was named. Ditto for Cleveland defensive line coach Dwaine Board, who will attempt to get 4-3 production from a Browns unit that features plenty of 3-4 leftovers. So was Denver defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely, who takes over a contingent shy on inside players. Special teams coaches who might be without both of their incumbent kickers because of pending free agency were included as well.

In all, nearly four dozen assistants were named by top NFL executives.

But the one name that stuck out because of the unusual circumstances — a new gig, on the opposite side of the ball, after having carved out an excellent reputation in his previous role with the same franchise — was Castillo.

"Look, because of the lockout, with no (minicamps or OTAs), every coach is going to be under pressure," said one NFC head coach. "But that Philly situation ... yeah, that is going to get a lot of attention. It's unusual, to say the least."

The poll was hardly scientific, and exact tabulations weren't compiled, but there was general agreement that the 16-year assistant is perhaps in a unique situation. Rarely has an incumbent NFL assistant been asked to switch sides of the ball. It's difficult to remember a guy with an offensive pedigree being promoted to such a critical spot, or someone on defense moving to a high-profile offensive post. No doubt, Castillo has been a top-shelf offensive line coach, with five blockers under his stewardship having been selected for at least one Pro Bowl appearance.

Castillo certainly has some big clodhoppers to fill. In Johnson's 10 years as Eagles defensive coordinator, the team finished statistically among the top 10 six times. Three times, Philadelphia was in the top seven. Only twice was the unit lower than No. 20. As noted above, even in McDermott's two seasons as Johnson's successor, the Eagles were 12th each year.

Still, given the comfort level of the players with their new coordinator, his familiarity with the locker room and the confidence team officials have in him, it's hard to bet against Castillo. But there is considerable work to be accomplished — the Eagles allowed 31 touchdown passes in 2010, their 39 sacks belied the lack of a consistent-pressure pass rush, there appear to be questions at linebacker and the unit could feature several new starters — for the unusual move by Reid to be seen as a roll of the dice that came up a winner.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.